FCC Cuts Small Ops Some DTV Slack


The Federal Communications Commission has revised its digital-television carriage rules in an effort to accommodate cable systems with limited capacity.

The FCC issued the new rules last Thursday, yielding to complaints that the original rules adopted in September 2007 failed to include blanket waivers for small cable operators.

Both the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the American Cable Association pressured the FCC for months to change policy. Under the old rules, the FCC said that hybrid cable systems (i.e. those with analog and digital capacity) had to provide consumers with analog and digital versions of a local TV station signal if the station elected to demand cable carriage. The dual-carriage mandate was to last for three years, starting Feb. 18, 2009.

All-digital systems were exempt from the dual carriage mandate. But since so few cable systems have gone all-digital, the exemption was practically meaningless.

The new rules, adopted unanimously, allow eligible small cable systems to carry must-carry TV stations only in analog during the same three-year period. Automatically covered by the exemption are all systems with 552 MHz or less of activated channel capacity, or all systems with 2,500 subscribers or fewer that are not owned by Comcast or Time Warner.

“This exemption is a reprieve to thousands of cable system operators who had neither the extra bandwidth nor the budget to comply with the digital must-carry obligation,” said ACA president Matt Polka in a prepared statement.

The FCC also clarified that hybrid large cable systems are to carry must-carry TV stations in analog and digital, but digital carriage is limited to times when the TV station is transmitting in high-definition format.

“I am also pleased that we clarify in this order that major cable operators are not required to carry a standard-definition digital version and an analog version because there is 'no perceivable difference between the two versions,’ ” said FCC Democrat Jonathan Adelstein in a prepared statement.

The one exception to the new large-system rule concerns subscribers that have digital boxes without analog tuners. In those cases, the FCC indicated that the cable system is required to provide the must-carry signal in three ways: analog, standard-definition digital and HD at applicable times.