Washington -- Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) is planning to
introduce a bill this week allowing companies like EchoStar Communications Corp. to offer
local broadcast signals throughout a local market.
Coble's bill will become the starting point of a
complex and contentious debate involving the cable industry, broadcasters, copyright
owners and direct-broadcast satellite operators over reform of the Satellite Home Viewer
Act, which sunsets Dec. 31, 1999.
'[Coble] intends to introduce a bill that all of them
can support,' said Mitch Glazier, chief counsel of the House Subcommittee on Courts
Although Glazier provided just a few details of the bill,
he told reporters that in all likelihood the measure will leave unchanged cable's
compulsory license. Under the license, cable can retransmit local broadcast signals at
virtually no cost and import distant signals for about $170 million annually in copyright
'Cable probably won't be touched,' Glazier
Coble, chairman of the subcommittee, is hoping to vote the
bill out of his subcommittee in March. No Senate bill is expected to surface anytime soon,
said Senate Judiciary Committee spokeswoman Jeanne Lopatto.
Glazier said the bill will permit EchoStar to beam local
signals back into their market of origin, but he declined to discuss in detail the
bill's application of must-carry and retransmission consent rules on local DBS
In an alliance that may prove to be too powerful for
EchoStar to overcome legislatively, cable and broadcasters are united in their support for
requiring EchoStar to comply with must-carry and retransmission consent.
William Sullivan, a board member of the National
Association of Broadcasters, said in testimony before Coble's panel last week that
EchoStar should carry all full-power TV stations in a market it elects to serve, obtain
retransmission consent if necessary, obey network non-duplication and syndicated
exclusivity rules and be barred from importing distant signals into the markets where it
provides local signals.
Charles Ergen, president and CEO of EchoStar, said in his
testimony that although 'a solution is workable with the broadcasters,' he wants
must-carry postponed until EchoStar has a larger subscriber base.
'I think anything with must-carry would have to have a
penetration test,' Ergen said. 'In fact, broadcasters set a precedent for that
themselves when they got free digital spectrum. They are not required to give back their
spectrum until there is a penetration of digital TV sets.'
EchoStar is offering local signals to 'unserved'
homes in six markets and has plans to serve about 20 markets representing 40 percent of
all U.S. households by the end of the year. But EchoStar can't sell to all homes in a
market without a change in the law or a favorable interpretation of current law from the
U.S. Copyright Office.
'I would prefer that the Congress clear up everything
so that it's very definitive,' Ergen said. 'We don't need a series of
three of four years of lawsuits to determine what the law is and what the law
Glazier indicated that Coble is searching for a compromise
that results in regulatory parity between cable operators and DBS carriers and that meets
with broadcaster approval.
'[Coble] said he wants to make sure that satellite has
the ability to be competitive with cable,' Glazier said. 'That means the same
rules, the same regulations, the same opportunities apply to both.'
Glazier declined to comment on two hot topics associated
with the reauthorization of SHVA: Will the Coble bill make the satellite license permanent
instead of subject to periodic review and will it remove the requirement that former cable
subscribers must wait 90 days before buying network signals from a satellite carrier.
House sources said the 90-day waiting period would be
removed and Coble was leaning toward making the satellite license permanent.
Removal of the 90-day waiting period is opposed by the
Small Cable Business Association, SBCA president Matt Polka said in testimony before
House Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Rep. Billy
Tauzin (R-La.), who will have a large say in the debate, favors allowing DBS carriers to
provide local signals under a must-carry requirement phased in over time but with a