House Clears DBS Bill with Two-Dish Ban


The House approved satellite copyright-renewal legislation Wednesday that gives EchoStar Communications Corp. just one year to convert all local TV subscribers to a single dish.

EchoStar customers in 38 markets need two dishes to receive all of their local TV stations -- a practice that infuriated the National Association of Broadcasters, but one that the Federal Communications Commission refused to ban. The House bill, if enacted in the weeks ahead, would hand the NAB a victory.

The House bill (H.R. 4518) would allow EchoStar to require a second dish, but all local TV stations would have to be available on that dish. EchoStar indicated that it might have to install second dishes to comply with the law and avoid having to change channel lineups.

“EchoStar is disappointed that the legislation passed by the House … includes many provisions harmful to consumers. The current bill would potentially force the installation of millions of second satellite dishes that consumers neither want nor need, benefiting only broadcaster special interests in other markets,” EchoStar said in a prepared statement after the bill passed on voice vote.

EchoStar opposed the two-dish ban, claiming that it would waste spectrum and frustrate its plans to serve customers with their local TV stations.

“If we are forced to start transferring customers with local channels onto a single satellite [dish], it’s going to take away from resources that we could have been devoting to expansion of local markets,” EchoStar spokesman Steve Caulk said after the House vote.

EchoStar provides local TV signals in 150 markets. The United States has 210 markets, with about 85% of all U.S households living the top 100.

DirecTV Inc. does not use two dishes for local TV signals.

Legislation passed by the Senate Commerce Committee would give EchoStar 18 months to end the two-dish practice, although the company could seek two five-month waivers after the deadline.

The House and Senate bill would allow satellite carriers to require a second dish to receive all digital-TV stations in a market.

The House bill contained numerous changes in copyright and communications law.

A key provision continues to allow EchoStar and DirecTV to distribute without permission superstations and the ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox stations in New York and Los Angeles to subscribers around the country who reside in so-called white areas -- locations where local network stations with weak signals can’t be picked up with a convention rooftop antenna.

The copyright license for distant network signals is set to expire Dec. 31. The House-passed bill extends the license to Dec. 31, 2009.

Congress is expected to adjourn this week to campaign for the Nov. 2 elections and return Nov. 15 to complete its work.

The Senate has not passed comparable satellite legislation due to a dispute between the Commerce and Judiciary committees.

The House bill did not include a digital-TV provision sought by EchoStar chairman and CEO Charlie Ergen.

Ergen wanted the right to distribute the HDTV feeds of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox around the country to consumers who couldn’t obtain programming in that format locally.

An EchoStar-backed coalition insisted that 40 million U.S. households are digitally unserved and deserved access to distant HDTV programming via satellite. But the NAB -- saying that the 40 million figure was ridiculously high -- opposed Ergen’s plan.

The bill passed by the Senate Commerce Committee includes a digital-white-area provision, but it failed to embrace Ergen’s full request.