Powell Sets DTV Carriage Agenda

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Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell has no plans to ease up on the digital-television transition.

Perhaps next month, the FCC intends to vote on two critical issues: Whether cable operators have to carry both analog and digital broadcast signals during the transition, and whether cable must carry a TV station's single programming stream or multiple signals after the transition.

Powell laid out the agenda in an Aug. 9 letter to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), one day after the FCC voted to require that nearly all new TV sets come equipped with off-air DTV tuners by July 2007.

TV stations are required to surrender their analog licenses either in 2006, or when 85 percent of households have equipment that can view digital TV signals, whichever comes later.

The government wants to recover spectrum from broadcasters for auction to wireless phone companies.

Cable and broadcasting sources last week indicated that the FCC is unlikely to impose dual must-carry during the transition. Recently, agency sources have indicated that dual carry looks unlikely because of the First Amendment impact on cable operators and programmers.

Broadcasters have been pushing for a legal redefinition of "primary video." In early 2001, the FCC said MSOs were required to carry a digital TV station's "primary video," defining "primary" as a single stream.

Spurred on by Republican FCC member Kevin Martin, the agency is reconsidering the meaning of "primary." Broadcasters want it redefined to entail all free programming streams contained in the digital bit stream, whether that's a single high-definition channel or multiple standard-definition channels.

According to an industry source, the FCC is considering a rule that would require cable systems to carry multiple programming streams from a station that provided a minimum number of hours of high-definition programming.

Another industry source said the FCC seemed headed for a cleaner rule that would require cable carriage of a digital TV station's free programming services.

Powell's letter outlined other steps. He said the FCC would "soon" address rules designed to promote "plug-and-play" compatibility between digital-cable systems and DTV sets. The rules would evidently ensure that a consumer that bought a digital television could attach it to any digital cable system in the country without a set-top box.

"Today, many consumers are able to connect their television sets directly to their cable systems and take that same set anywhere in the country and do likewise," Powell said. "Consumers should have a similar option in the digital world."

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