Martin Sets Digital Priority


Las Vegas— Ensuring that every analog-only cable subscriber can view digital TV signals is “critical” to completing a smooth transition to all-digital broadcasting in February 2009, FCC chairman Kevin Martin said last Tuesday.

Martin, in remarks at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, also repeated support for Federal Communications Commission rules that would force cable operators to carry multiple digital programming services a TV station elected to transmit.

“If a majority was willing to relook at that, I think that would be an important opportunity for us to address before 2009,” Martin said in a question-and-answer session with NAB joint board chairman Bruce Reece.

Reece then quipped: “I think that would be a good place for the TV guys to applaud.”

Congress last year passed a law mandating the cut off of analog TV on Feb. 17, 2009, but many cable-carriage issues remain somewhat cloudy.

Martin seemed to be saying he’s concerned that after Feb. 17, 2009, analog cable homes could lose access to local TV stations and subscribers with high-definition sets might receive an analog signal.

The FCC, he said, would need to focus on cable’s legal obligation to ensure that digital TV signals are viewable in subscriber homes with only analog reception equipment.

“What is the obligation in the cable context to make sure [cable is] carrying a signal that gets to everyone’s home and is viewable?” Martin said.

Section 614(b) (7) of the Communications Act, adopted in 1992, requires that local-TV signals “shall be provided to every subscriber of a cable system. Such signals shall be viewable via cable on all television receivers of a subscriber which are connected to a cable system by a cable operator or for which a cable operator provides a connection.”

Said Martin: “I think viewable is the key term. I think that 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.”

The FCC, he said, might not need to conduct a rulemaking: “I think what we will say is that it has to be viewable, because that’s what I think the statutes say.”

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has said if a cable operator carried a TV station in digital, it can also carry the station in analog, with downconversion of the digital signal occurring at the cable system headend.

The NAB has said downconversion should occur only in a subscriber home, presumably with a set-top box. NCTA prefers headend downconversion in order to avoid huge set-top box deployment costs and to permit analog subscribers to migrate to digital on their on own timetable.

Martin said the signal degradation issue needed examination. He also indicated that cable would not run afoul of the “viewable” test if it transmitted digital and analog versions of the same signal.