WASHINGTON -After taking a pounding from broadcasters for 30 months, the Federal Communications Commission is about to tackle issues that involve cable carriage of digital TV signals in an attempt to accelerate the phase-out of analog service.
Late last week, it was unclear whether FCC chairman William Kennard would force his colleagues to touch the third rail of digital-TV politics-namely, forced cable carriage of both analog and digital TV signals during the transition to all-digital broadcasting.
FCC sources last week said some commission members were clamoring to put the agency on record right now. Others said Kennard had not strayed from his view that an immediate dual-carriage requirement was premature and legally suspect without knowledge of the channel capacity of cable operators or the business plans of local-TV stations.
Officials at the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable Television Association declined to comment last week on what legal steps they would take if they opposed the FCC's action.
If the FCC declines to take a dual-carriage stand at its Jan. 11 meeting, the agency is facing a Jan. 20 deadline to act on 13 digital must-carry complaints filed by Paxson Communications Corp. involving AT&T Broadband and other cable operators in the Chicago market.
In the Sept. 11 complaint, opposed by AT&T and the NCTA, Paxson demanded the FCC order cable systems to carry its digital-TV signal in analog without an obligation to carry the incumbent analog station, which Paxson said would remove the dual carriage problem.
But in a twist immediately rejected by the cable industry, Paxson also demanded cable carriage of five multiplexed digital signals for viewing by cable subscribers with digital set-tops.
Those issues aside, the FCC is planning to vote next week on a request for ruling by WHDT-DT, a start-up TV station in Stuart, Fla., that is close to launching digital-only service.
Station owner Guenter Marksteiner wants cable operators in the station's market to carry its signal in analog. NCTA opposed the proposal, saying Marksteiner was unfairly seeking a coveted analog slot at the expense of new cable networks that also are pressing for analog cable distribution.
In September, Marksteiner modified his request to allow cable operators to carry his station in analog or digital, with the proviso that no cable operator could interfere with the ability of cable subscribers with high-definition receivers to view the station's HDTV programming.
FCC sources indicated last week that the agency would likely vote on Marksteiner's original proposal.
The agency launched its digital must-carry rulemaking in July 1998, one year after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law requiring cable carriage of analog TV stations that elect must-carry.
The National Association of Broadcasters-without the backing of the four major networks-implored the FCC to force cable operators to carry both the digital and analog signals transmitted by local TV stations that have opted for must-carry.
All along, the cable industry has argued that operators are required to carry digital TV signals only after broadcasters have surrendered their analog licenses to the government. The NCTA has said a dual-carriage mandate would violate First Amendment free-speech rights and Fifth Amendment prohibitions on the taking of private property without just compensation.
Under the FCC's transition scheme, the deadline for the analog return is Dec. 31, 2006. But Congress changed that date, and said TV stations in a given market could keep both licenses until 85 percent of households in that market had the ability to receive digital-TV signals.
By May 2002, all 1,288 commercial TV stations are required to beam a digital signal. To date, 167 stations have launched in digital; only a few are carried by cable systems.
Without digital must-carry, NAB insists the FCC will invite what NAB president Edward Fritts calls "a train wreck," because TV stations will not invest to upgrade to digital unless they're certain cable subscribers can see their programming. In most markets, cable serves about two-thirds of TV households.
In a letter to Kennard last week, Fritts said the law was clear in requiring cable operators to carry digital-TV signals. Concerns about a paucity of cable channels were unfounded except for the country's smallest cable operators, he added.
"Therefore, I urge you to adopt a decision requiring cable systems to carry the digital signals of local television stations in their market," Fritts said, adding that the FCC should also require digital tuners to be installed in every new TV receiver.
FCC sources said the agency planned to vote on numerous issues associated with cable carriage of digital-TV stations.
One issue that has alarmed Kennard and his aides is the impact of dual carriage on consumer cable rates. The law requires cable operators to carry broadcast signals on the basic tier, which cable subscribers must purchase before or at the same time they purchase standard cable networks and premium cable networks.
FCC officials have said they are worried that basic-cable rates could spike if consumers are required to buy analog and digital-TV signals, especially in cable homes in which all TV sets aren't hooked to a digital box. The agency is apparently concerned about consumer resistance to paying higher rates for programming they already receive.
Another issue concerns the definition of a TV station's primary video signal. The cable industry insists operators must carry the analog or digital signal, but not both. To the extent operators carry digital signals, they are under no obligation to carry multiple digital signals or ancillary data services, the NCTA has said.
The NAB wants the FCC to mandate cable carriage of the entire digital-TV bit stream, whether the content is a single HDTV program or multiple standard-definition programs similar to the services transmitted by Paxson's Chicago digital station.
Other issues on the table include whether a TV station could choose must-carry for its digital signal and retransmission consent for its analog signal, or whether the station needs to make a uniform election for both signals.
The FCC is also expected to decide whether cable operators may convert the broadcast transmission standard (8 vestigial sideband) to the cable-preferred transmission standard (quadrature-amplitude modulation).
The agency intends to address whether cable operators may downconvert an HDTV signal provided by a TV station to less bandwidth-intensive standard-definition signals.
Lastly, the FCC is expected to adopt channel-mapping rules related to the use of the Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) standard.
PSIP permits multicast channels to appear in sequence. For example, if a TV station's primary digital-TV station were on cable channel 40, multicast channels could be on, say, channels 201 through 205.
With the PSIP technology, the remote control would automatically move a subscriber from channel 40 to channels 201, 202, 203, 204 and 205, before jumping back to 41.