The Federal Communications Commission has extended by up to three years the deadline for some small cable operators to start participating in the national Emergency Alert System.
In October, operators with fewer than 10,000 subscribers will be required to either provide national EAS messages on all the channels they utilize, or they'll need to be able to deliver audio and video alert signals on all channels and EAS messages on at least one channel. Operators with more than 10,000 subscribers were required to participate by the end of 1998.
Dozens of small operators concentrated in rural areas have complained that new equipment and technological upgrades needed to comply with the FCC's rule would cost them tens of thousands of dollars — and could put them out of business.
"It's really not a question of whether a company provides EAS, but whether the company exists at all," said American Cable Association president Matthew Polka. "If these regulations are imposed across the board, that is diametrically opposed to the broader goal to provide [services] in rural areas."
In a flurry of orders last week, the FCC agreed. The agency approved waiver requests from six operators, extending the deadlines for most of them until 2005.
"We're giving them a chance to get themselves readjusted so they can comply," said an official in the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, which issued the waivers.
"This is the beginning of what will be a series of orders," said Chris Cinnamon of Cinnamon Mueller, the Chicago law firm that represents more than 40 small operators who requested waivers. "The job that the Enforcement Bureau has done has really allayed the fears that the regulators in Washington would not understand what's going on in the heartland."
WAIVERS IN 6 STATES
The six companies that received waivers last week operate systems in Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming. Five of them have fewer than 1,000 subscribers. They expect the costs of EAS participation to decline over the next three years.
"The anticipation is that the equipment costs will come down in that time, or capital markets will improve … or systems will be sold to a larger operator," Cinnamon said.
The Pittsburgh-based American Cable Association is lobbying Congress to cover some of the costs that small operators face. Polka said the group also is talking to federal agencies about alternatives to EAS that could be less burdensome to operators in rural areas.
The six companies that received waivers last week are Carson Communications LLC in Kansas, Cunningham Communications Inc. in Kansas and Nebraska; Pine Bluffs Community Television System in Wyoming; Project Services Inc. in Minnesota; Souris River Television Inc. in North Dakota and WMW Cable Television Co. in South Dakota.
States News Service