FCC to Study DTV’s Analog Impact

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The Federal Communications Commission is planning to examine the obligations of cable operators to ensure that consumers with analog-TV sets can view digital signals of local TV stations, an agency source said Monday.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin is trying to round up support to launch a rulemaking that would establish federal policy well before TV stations must cease analog transmission Feb. 17, 2009, the source said.

Martin is hoping to launch the rulemaking at the FCC’s June 15 public meeting and at the same the commission adopts rules that would allow digital-TV stations to demand cable carriage of every free programming services they transmit. FCC rules currently require carriage of just one signal per TV station.

Broadcasters' transition to digital could prove costly to cable operators, depending on the substance of the FCC’s rules.

When TV stations transmit only in digital signals, cable consumers with analog equipment won’t be able to view them. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association wants cable operators that carry local broadcasters in digital to have the right to offer the same signal in analog from the headend.

If the FCC were to outlaw headend downconversion, analog-cable subscribers would need to lease converter boxes for each analog receiver they want to use to watch television. Another option is to purchase digital cable-compatible TV sets with CableCARD interfaces.

Cable operators banned from downconverting at the headend would need to expand their capital budgets to warehouse millions of converter boxes not just for analog-only homes, but also for digital homes that have analog-TV sets not attached to digital set-tops.

According to NCTA figures, 54% of cable subscribers -- 35 million homes -- do not have any digital equipment.

Since 1992, federal law that has required that local TV signals “shall be viewable via cable on all television receivers of a subscriber that are connected to a cable system by a cable operator or for which a cable operator provides a connection.”

In April, Martin went public with his interest in deciding how analog-cable subscribers would be served digital-TV signals by their cable companies.

“I think ‘viewable’ is the key term [in the law]. I think Congress passed a law and said cable operators have to make sure that the broadcast signals that they are carrying are viewable by everyone that they are serving,” Martin said.

In the end, Martin indicated that the FCC might leave it to cable operators to decide how to comply with the law.

“I think what we will say is that it has to be viewable, because that’s what I think the statutes say,” he added.

For a while, the National Association of Broadcasters insisted that no downconversion occur at the headend, even if cable were simultaneously transmitting a digital signal.

In recent days, the NAB has softened its position.

“Congress should protect against the disenfranchisement of analog-only viewers by creating the necessary guidelines to allow downconversion for the consumer in an analog household,” NAB president David Rehr said in a May 26 letter to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

In the same letter, Rehr said cable should not be allowed to downconvert HD digital signals to standard-definition because “consumers have invested hard-earned dollars in digital and high-definition sets.”

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