Senate Forcing FCC on Multicasting


A bill expected to clear the Senate in a few days includes a provision that would require the Federal Communications Commission to quickly resolve a long-standing dispute between the cable and broadcasting industries.

The issue -- contained in an amendment adopted unanimously Wednesday -- would force the FCC to decide whether cable companies need to carry every programming service that a digital-TV station can pack into its signals.

Currently, about five or six digital channels can fill the same amount of bandwidth used by a single analog service.

Sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), the provision would require the commission to issue “a final decision” on the cable-carriage issue by Jan. 1. FCC staff is planning to recommend cable carriage of all digital-TV multicast services offered free-of-charge to over-the-air viewers.

Broadcasters have been pushing the FCC to overturn a 2001 decision that digital-TV stations were entitled to carriage of just one service. The cable industry has been fighting back, saying that digital-TV stations would use a multicast mandate to flood their networks with low-quality infomercials and home shopping fare while squeezing out cable networks that don’t have broadcast licenses.

Although the agency is planning to address the multicast issue in November or December, the McCain amendment -- which is supported by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association -- would ensure that it did not let the matter drag on for months.

McCain’s provision was added to a national intelligence-reform bill (S.2845), which is expected to reach the White House this year. McCain’s multicasting amendment would need to survive a joint House-Senate committee that reconciles dissimilar legislation.