NCTA Fighting for Digital Downconversion


The cable industry’s leading trade group is advocating a federal policy that would give cable operators the option to convert digital-broadcast signals to analog at cable systems’ headends.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering a digital-television-transition plan with many moving parts, and it’s unclear whether authority to downconvert digital signals will ultimately reside with TV stations or cable operators.

“Assigning to cable operators the choice either to carry the digital signal of the broadcaster or to convert the digital signal to analog best correlates with subscriber welfare, while preserving the carriage rights of broadcasters,” the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said in an Oct. 8 FCC filing.

The FCC plan, now at the staff level, would transfer a TV station’s mandatory cable-carriage rights from the analog to the digital signal no later than Jan. 1, 2009. The cable company would be required to make digital-TV signals available to all subscribers by passing them through unchanged or downconverting them to analog.

After TV stations have surrendered their analog licenses, the FCC plan calls for giving broadcasters the option of cable carriage in digital or analog, according to testimony given in June to a House subcommittee by the plan’s author, Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree.

The NCTA wants the format-selection authority granted to cable operators until a substantial majority of consumers have digital-reception equipment, because if a TV station insisted on digital carriage, its signal would be unviewable on analog-TV sets in the homes of millions of cable subscribers.

Consumers would need to buy digital-TV sets or lease cable set-top boxes to view passed-through digital-broadcast signals. The FCC plan would not require cable operators to provide the equipment to make digital-TV signals viewable on analog sets, according to Ferree’s testimony.

“We expressed our concerns about the potential disruption to tens of millions of cable customers once analog spectrum is returned if the FCC does not give cable systems the right to convert digital-broadcast signals to analog at the cable-system headend until digital penetration reaches 85%,” the NCTA said.

The trade group’s position was summarized in a two-page memo of an Oct. 7 meeting held between several NCTA officials, including president Robert Sachs, and Ferree and members of his staff.

The National Association of Broadcasters has told the FCC that in addition to being bad policy, downconversion at the headend would violate the federal bar on the material degradation of local-broadcast signals by cable operators.

“We think it would violate the statute for cable operators to degrade free signals offered by local broadcasters,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

In the meeting, NCTA officials also reiterated their opposition to a Ferree-backed proposal that would, after the transition, require cable carriage of every free programming service a digital-TV station can pack into its digital bit stream.

Today, that’s about five or six channels. The NCTA said the FCC should authorize carriage of just one programming service, consistent with the agency’s ruling in January 2001.