Cable Operators Seek To Broaden Martin Plan


Washington -- Charter Communications, Mediacom Communications, and Cequel Communications want Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin to broaden his proposal designed to give small cable operators relief from rules mandating the duplicative carriage of some local TV signals.

Martin’s plan, announced in early April at the American Cable Association’s annual Washington D.C. summit, included relief for cable systems with 552 MHz of capacity or less. Last week, the three cable companies said relief should also include systems with up to 5,000 subscribers or “some other threshold deemed suitable.”

The scope of Martin’s proposal should expand, the MSOs said, because they and other cable operators have systems with 750 MHz of capacity that have not been upgraded to digital and do not have the subscriber base to justify doing so.

“Charter operates an all analog Tangier Island, Va., system with 750 MHz and only 33 subscribers. Mediacom operates an all analog system in Kansas with 750 MHz and 53 customers. The costs of providing digital service in these very small systems is prohibitive,” the cable operators said in an April 30 letter to the FCC.

Martin’s plan relates to cable carriage of digital TV signals of stations that elect mandatory cable carriage. The plan would go into effect immediately after all full-power TV stations convert to all-digital broadcasting on Feb. 17, 2009.

Last September, the FCC said that all cable systems, regardless of capacity, had to carry so-called must carry TV stations in both analog and digital formats for three years. Cable systems that go all-digital are exempt, meaning they need to provide must carry signals just in digital.

Small cable operators, with help from a few members of the Senate Commerce Committee, convinced Martin to relax the rules for all small-capacity cable systems. ACA, the trade group of independent cable companies, complained that Martin’s that systems with capacity issues should file individual waivers was too expensive.

Martin’s plan, which he has circulated to the other four FCC members, would permit 552 MHz systems to carry must-carry signals only in analog if the systems are analog-only. Eligible systems that have upgraded to digital can provide the must carry signals only in analog if digital set-tops boxes can tune in analog signals. Dual carriage would still apply if digital set-tops lack analog tuners.

In their letter, the three MSOs embraced Martin's plan except for the capacity cap.

“We submit that systems with fewer than 5,000 subscribers—or some other threshold deemed suitable by the [FCC] — should be extended relief – regardless of bandwidth,” the cable companies said.

The MSOs added that additional relief was justified because the FCC just got done doing the same for DirecTV and Dish Network on the carriage of local TV signals in high-definition format after the Feb. 17, 2009 transition.

The FCC opted to give the two satellite TV providers until 2013 to carry all stations in HD within any market where they have elected to carry any station's signal in HD format.

The FCC did include interim benchmarks. By Feb. 17, 2010, DirecTV and Dish Network need to provide full HD carriage in 15% of their HD markets; in 30% by 2011; 60% in 2012; and 100% by 2013.

“We believe that [our proposal] is as practical and realistic as the relief afforded last month to our largest competitors—DirecTV and Dish Network,” the cable MSO said.