Small Cablers Seek Exemption

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In House testimony last Wednesday, Insight Communications CEO Michael Willner called for a blanket exemption for small cable TV operators from new digital TV station carriage rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in September.

“While small systems have a strong interest in and will ensure that their customers can receive the broadcasters’ signal after the digital transition, they should not be forced to use their limited capacity for dual carriage when rural and smaller-market customers are demanding advanced services, like faster broadband and digital telephone,” Willner said, appearing before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet on various digital television issues.

Last month, the FCC said that cable systems that didn’t convert to all-digital platforms by Feb. 17, 2009, had to provide viewers with analog and digital versions of local TV stations that demanded cable carriage of their signals. The dual carriage requirement is to sunset in three years.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin refused to provide a blanket waiver for small systems, holding out for a rule that requires them to seek individual waivers from the agency.

American Cable Association chairman Patrick Knorr, general manager of Sunflower Broadband, told the House panel that small company ACA members can’t afford to provide digital set-tops to every customer and don’t have the capacity to provide each must carry station in analog and digital.

The FCC, Knorr said, should have granted waivers to small-capacity systems so they didn’t have to hire a lawyer to lobby the agency in a process with an uncertain outcome.

“If an operator can’t afford the equipment, what makes the FCC think they can afford a lawyer?” Knorr said. Sunflower, based in Lawrence, Kan., serves 35,000 subscribers.

Willner said a waiver from the FCC wouldn’t be a daring move because it has had bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for a long time.

“The FCC should have provided an exemption for small systems, just like this committee did in 2005,” Willner said, in a reference to DTV legislation that was not enacted into law.

Willner’s company is the ninth largest cable MSO, with 1.3 million subscribers in Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio. At year’s end, it is expected to close a transaction with Comcast in which those subscribers will be divided between the two companies.

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