Washington— On the heels of a recent regulatory victory, EchoStar Communications Corp. is continuing to warn regulators about the alleged ills associated with mandated direct-broadcast satellite carriage of local TV signals in high-definition format.
Today, EchoStar carries local TV stations in dozens of markets, but those stations are not carried in HDTV. Instead, current analog TV signals are converted to standard-definition digital format, which uses a lot less bandwidth than HD. One HDTV signal occupies the space of five standard-definition signals, according to EchoStar.
With TV stations converting to digital — and many big-market broadcasters offering HDTV during primetime — EchoStar is concerned that an HDTV carriage mandate would swamp its capacity and force it to rethink its hugely successful local-TV signal strategy that took hold in late 1999, after passage of the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act (SHVIA).
EchoStar officials discussed their concerns last month in a meeting with the Federal Communications Commission, shortly after the agency's Media Bureau issued a ruling that temporarily denied a Florida TV station's request for mandatory HDTV carriage on EchoStar in the West Palm Beach market.
FCC sources said the agency is considering whether to require DBS carriage of local TV stations in HD in the same rulemaking that will decide if cable operators must carry local digital-TV signals during the DTV transition and beyond.
Edge for cable?
By law, when EchoStar serves a local TV market, it has to carry all stations in that market. In the FCC meeting, EchoStar said an HDTV mandate would place unlawful burdens on the company's First Amendment rights and potentially negate all the progress made since Congress first allowed DBS carriers to offer local signals.
An HDTV mandate would put the local-signal strategy at risk, warned EchoStar senior vice president of engineering and systems Dave Kummer.
"If we were required to carry all the local HD stations, we would have very little choice but to drop almost all of the nearly 60 cities where we offer local channels today," he said
Some analysts have noted — and some cable industry leaders have acknowledged — that cable carriage of local TV in HDTV format could be used as a competitive weapon against spectrum-constrained DBS, especially if EchoStar and DirecTV Inc. decide to abandon local markets to skirt a federal mandate.
Officials at DirecTV, which is planning to soar to 100 local markets by the end of the year, declined to comment on plans to carry local over-the-air HD signals.
Carmel Group DBS analyst Jimmy Schaeffler said that he has been skeptical about past spectrum scarcity arguments proffered by EchoStar and DirecTV, but he's willing this time to give EchoStar the benefit of the doubt regarding HDTV.
"If Kummer says that, I would have to go along with him. But I would like to sit down with him and ask him a lot of pointed questions," Schaeffler said.
Last Wednesday, the Florida station denied HDTV satellite carriage appealed the Media Bureau's decision to FCC chairman Michael Powell and the other four commissioners.
WHDT-DT in Stuart, Fla., said it had a statutory right to DBS carriage in HDTV, contrary to the Media Bureau's finding that the WHDT complaint against EchoStar was premature because the agency had yet to establish rules governing DBS carriage of digital TV signals.
WDTV, which began service last year with a slate of international programming from the German news service Deutsche Welle, is believed to be the only station in the country offering HDTV programming on a 24-hour basis.
If forced to carry WHDT in high-definition, EchoStar told the FCC that it would consider abandoning the West Palm Beach market. EchoStar offered to carry WHDT in standard definition but could not reach a deal with the station.
Assuming the FCC adopts a DBS HDTV mandate, EchoStar plans to soften the blow by deploying set-tops that can integrate satellite-delivered programming and local HDTV signals captured with an off-air antenna.