Senators Back Dual Carriage Exemption

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Washington -- Seven U.S. Senators want the Federal Communications Commission to exempt small cable operators from rules that largely require the duplicative carriage of some local TV signals beginning in early 2009.

The FCC refused to exempt small-capacity systems or systems with 5,000 subscribers or fewer because FCC chairman Kevin Martin did not believe that their hardship was genuine. Instead, Martin would only agree to a case-by-case waiver system, forcing mom-and-pop cable companies to work the federal bureaucracy.

Troubled by such an approach they called “burdensome,” the senators are advocating a blanket exemption for systems with less than 552 MHz of capacity or with 5,000 or few subscribers.

“We can not find a compelling reason to force small cable operators to incur unnecessary financial hardship. With the majority of the cable industry on the same page, we request that you reconsider your position on this matter,” the lawmakers said in a Nov. 15 letter addressed to Martin.

The letter was signed by two Democrats and five Republicans, including Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Gordon Smith (R-Or.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), and John Thune (R-S.D.).

Although the FCC adopted the carriage rule on Sept. 11, 2007, it has not released the text of the order. The rules, as described by various FCC officials, would require nearly all cable systems to carry so-called must carry stations in analog and digital for three years after Feb. 17, 2009, the point when TV stations are to rely exclusive on digital format transmission.

Cable systems that have ceased all analog transmission do not have the same dual carriage obligation. But since so few cable systems are likely to have converted to all-digital operations by Feb. 17, 2009, the FCC order was a de facto, across-the-board dual carriage mandate.

On Oct. 17, Martin testified before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, denying that the FCC order was effectively dual carriage. Instead, he said cable's concerns were rooted in a disingenuous agenda to use the DTV transition as a rationale to deny consumers access to local TV stations that rely on mandatory cable carriage rights.

“We will take a look at the waiver process. But I think we have to put it in context. The digital transition should not be an opportunity for cable operators to disenfranchise consumers from the broadcast stations they receive today,” Martin said.

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