Cablevision: Fewer Than 1% Of NYC Subs Affected By Crypto Waiver

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Cablevision Systems said encrypting its full cable TV lineup in New York City would directly affect fewer than 1% of subscribers, and that it would offer analog-only customers two set-tops or CableCards free for at least two years if the Federal Communications Commission granted its request for a waiver to rules banning the encryption of basic broadcast channels.

The operator reiterated in reply comments filed Monday with the FCC that it would make the move to encrypt all channels only when the New York City system is all-digital.

The company in August requested an exemption to the crypto ban in its New York City franchise areas, arguing that scrambling the full digital TV lineup would deter signal theft and reduce its costs by allowing it to remotely connect and disconnect customers.

Cablevision argued that granting the waiver is in consumers' interests: "Enabling immediate service connections and disconnections clearly benefits subscribers. It is far easier to make a telephone call and receive a requested service immediately than to make an appointment for a future time, miss a day of work, and sit [at] home to receive a service call."

Currently, Cablevision said, it has fewer than 6,000 analog-only customers in its Brooklyn and Bronx service areas out of more than 700,000 in the city. Digital subscribers who have an additional TV set receiving only analog signals would be able to receive one set-top or CableCard free for one year, while qualified low-income analog-only customers will get two free set-tops or CableCards for five years, the operator said.

"The very minimal burden that a tiny percentage of Cablevision's New York City subscribers would incur from grant of the petition -- a burden Cablevision has agreed to minimize through an offer of a free set-top box or CableCard -- is far outweighed by the significant benefits that thousands of Cablevision subscribers would enjoy immediately," the operator said.

In addition, Cablevision noted that the city's franchising authority does not object to the waiver request.

"The City [of New York] recognizes that benefits of encryption may outweigh the burden of encryption, given the extremely small number of affected subscribers," Cablevision said.

Cablevision also pointed out that none of its subscribers in New York City has filed an objection with the agency over the request, although several of its customers in other parts of the metro area, as well as the Consumer Electronics Association and other commenters, have opposed it. More recently, a city councilman from Queens, James Gennaro, supported the move.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation in a Nov. 6 filing opposed Cablevision's waiver request, arguing that consumers who have purchased TVs or other equipment to receive in-the-clear digital cable will be "stranded." "Relying on clear QAM and preferring not to have a set-top box is not a particularly bizarre choice," the EFF said.

Cablevision responded that "to the extent... that subscribers' television sets have no CableCard slot, that is no reason to stop Cablevision from modernizing its cable systems so that its subscribers can enjoy the full benefits of an encrypted, all-digital cable system."

The EFF requested the FCC deny the Cablevision waiver request. In the alternative, the group said, the waiver should be granted subject to the condition that Cablevision issue set-top boxes to provide subscribers with a level of access to basic-tier programming substantially equivalent to their current level of access (which the operator in its filing Monday said it would do).

More broadly Cablevision said the FCC has been promoting cable operators' move to all-digital for years, and that the operator earlier this year announced it would no longer offer an analog expanded basic tier to customers as of the end of 2009.

Meanwhile, Public Knowledge and the Media Access Project -- which previously said they have no objection to Cablevision's waiver request -- in comments Monday said the FCC should initiate a general rulemaking regarding the cable digital conversion regardless of the outcome of the Cablevision petition.

"A flurry of ‘Cablevision waivers' would prevent the Commission from engaging in a careful consideration of the policy implications of the ongoing digital transition," the interest groups said. "Case-by-case exceptions would continue to weaken consumer protections and decrease certainty for innovative companies and incumbents alike."

In its reply comments, Cablevision noted, "It is well established that each waiver request is considered on its own terms and that the Commission will not reject a waiver request simply because it raises industry-wide issues."

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