Set-Top Order Distresses Small Ops

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The Federal Communications Commission’s holding Comcast to a July deadline for removing embedded security from cable set-tops causes “grave concerns” for small cable companies in the American Cable Association.

The FCC’s Media Bureau Wednesday rejected Comcast’s request for a waiver from the requirement. That was after agency chairman Kevin Martin publicly said larger cable companies should be told to “move forward” with the change without further delay of a deadline that had previously been pushed back.

Martin said the commission was more sympathetic toward smaller cable companies facing increased costs due to the change, and the agency did grant modified waivers to Cablevision Systems and Bend Cable Communications. But Comcast’s waiver was rejected -- a move Comcast called “regrettable.”

ACA CEO Matthew Polka said in a prepared statement late Thursday that his group “highly appreciates that chairman Martin and the FCC are sensitive to the unique concerns of smaller operators in the Media Bureau’s orders on set-top boxes. However, it is, unfortunately, unrealistic for most smaller cable companies to upgrade to all-digital prior to the DTV deadline in February 2009.” He referred to the upcoming deadline for all television to convert to digital from analog broadcasting.

Polka continued, “We also respectfully disagree with the FCC's conclusion that continued deployment of low-cost set-top boxes, like the [Motorola] DCT-700, is not critical to expanding the deployment of digital and VOD services. Hence, without the waivers requested by ACA members and other cable companies, millions of consumers will be prevented from receiving advanced digital services or be forced to pay significantly higher rates to receive the same services they receive today.”

He concluded, “The set-top ban and deadline cause unique problems by forcing the ACA’s smaller operators to use their scarce resources to comply, making it even more difficult to move forward in the digital transition. The ACA is dedicated to working with Congress and the FCC to ensure that policymakers understand these grave concerns and will address them for the benefit of all consumers.”

The rule is intended to make it possible for consumers to buy set-tops and digital-TV sets that can be plugged into any cable system in the country. This can only be accomplished now by removing the embedded security technology from set-tops and leaving room for a CableCARD that can be plugged in later.

Comcast and other cable companies say having to make such an equipment change is expensive and will be rendered moot when downloadable security methods become available.

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