NCTA Stumps For Dual Carriage Exemption

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Washington -- The head of the cable industry’s largest trade association is pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to act quickly to provide small cable systems with a blanket waiver from new rules that require duplicative carriage of some local TV stations signals beginning in early 2009.

 “I am writing to emphasize the importance of swift action,” National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow said in a letter Tuesday to FCC chairman Kevin Martin and the other four commissioners.

He added, “Such action will allow these systems to provide each must-carry station’s signal to customers without incurring unnecessary, burdensome costs, and without having to use their evident limited channel capacity for duplicative signals.”

An appeal now to Martin -- who controls the pace of action at the FCC -- was a risk. Last Friday, McSlarrow sent a letter to two House members accusing Martin of delivering “deceptive and false” testimony on Feb. 13 about retail cable rate trends.

If anything, Martin is looking to pile more regulations upon cable operators, including a plan to award more than 500 Class A TV stations with new mandatory cable carriage rights at the agency's Feb. 26 meeting.

Last fall, the FCC required cable operators to distribute so-called must carry stations (meaning those that don’t bargain for carriage) in both analog and digital formats.

All-digital systems are exempt – but because so few systems have gone all-digital, the exemption has almost no short-term utility. The rules take effect on Feb. 18, 2009, the day after full-power TV stations need to drop their analog signals and rely exclusively on their digital signals, and sunset in 2012.

NCTA wants a blanket exemption for systems with 552 MHz of capacity or less or with 5,000 subscribers or fewer. So far, the FCC has invited small systems to seek individual waivers.

“NCTA continues to strongly support an outright exemption from this dual-carriage obligation for a limited group of systems,” McSlarrow’s letter said.

McSlarrow letter didn't make clear how small systems would make use of the exemption, including whether small systems would carry stations either in analog or in digital and require subscribers to lease a set-top boxes to view the signals.

When the FCC adopted the dual-carriage mandate last September, Martin refused to go along with a blanket waiver, claiming that cable’s capacity shortage was an exaggeration. He told a House subcommittee that cable operators wanted to use the DTV transition as an excuse to drop some local TV stations.

He also refused to call the rules a dual-carriage requirement, arguing that duplicative transmission is optional because of the all-digital exemption.

Earlier this month, six cable programmers, including C-SPAN and Discovery, sued the FCC in a federal appeals court to overturn the dual-carriage rules.

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