Martin Ready To Hit Cable With Dual Carriage Rules

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Washington -- The Federal Communications Commission is planning to vote next Tuesday on rules that would force cable operators to transmit hundreds of “must carry” local TV stations in both analog and digital until the systems had converted to all-digital transmission.

The vote to impose dual carriage on cable operators was announced Tuesday night when the agency released the agenda for its Sept. 11 public meeting.

Depending on the language adopted, the FCC could end up effectively imposing triple carriage: once in analog, once in standard definition digital and once again in high-definition, eating up bandwidth that cable hoped to dedicate to faster Internet access and other advanced services, such as video on demand.

The mandate would kick in on Feb. 18, 2009, the day after all full-power TV stations by law must stop transmitting analog pictures.

The imposition of unwanted additional carriage mandates on cable would be a political victory for FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who has consistently sided with cable’s opponents at the agency on almost every major issue except in the area of broadband regulation where cable is mostly on the same side as AT&T and Verizon, phone giants to which Martin has been routinely helpful.

Scheduling a vote would imply that Martin has the votes to win at the five-member FCC, where Republicans hold a 3-2 edge. But Martin has pulled scheduled items before when the votes weren’t there.

Martin insists that cable has a legal obligation to ensure that must carry TV signals are viewable in cable homes. Because an analog-only home can’t see a digital signal without a set-top box, Martin supports dual carriage. Comcast and other cable operators have argued that carriage of the digital must carry signal is legally sufficient provided customers know that leasing a digital set-top box will bring in the must carry stations.

Broadcasters who would be the beneficiaries of Martin’s regulatory largesse claim that dual must carry is a misnomer because cable systems have the voluntary choice of going all digital, obviating the need for duplicative analog service.

But the National Cable & Telecommunications Association has told the FCC that dual must carry is the de facto result because going all-digital would require 32 million analog-only cable homes to lease digital set-top boxes.

NCTA has told the FCC a dual carriage exemption would mean attaching digital set-tops to 126 million legacy analog TV sets. Assuming a $50 box cost, the price tag to avoid dual must carry: $6.3 billion.

NCTA and cable operators are expected to wage a major court battle to toss out any dual carriage regime issued by the Martin-led FCC.

The FCC's dual carriage mandate would apply only to stations that demand cable carriage, not to the 800 or so affiliates of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox that negotiate their way onto cable platforms.

All public TV stations must elect must carry. Probably hundreds of commercial TV stations elect must carry but the FCC does not keep data on must carry elections.

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