Small Ops Brace for Digital Transition

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Phoenix – With exactly a year to go until the transition to all-digital broadcasting, small cable operators Monday got a tutorial on how to navigate “the chaos” of the many regulatory obligations they need to fulfill.

“Like it or not, it’s coming in 364 days and what are we going to do about it,” said lawyer Chris Cinnamon, referring to the Feb. 17, 2009, analog cut-off date, which he described as “an unprecedented intrusion of government into multiple industries.”

He made his remarks during the opening session of the National Cable Television Cooperative’s Winter Educational Conference.

The two-day confab, entitled “Digital Decisions: Roadmap to Change,” kicked off with Cinnamon outlining the questions and concerns small independent operators should be thinking about now that the February deadline next year is looming for TV station signals to go all-digital.

Part and parcel with that, small cable systems face the burden of fulfilling the Federal Communications Commission’s dual-carriage mandate, which requires operators to deliver both the analog and digital signals of must-carry broadcasters.

“This is why we’re here, to make some sense out of the chaos,” NCTC president Jeff Abbas told his members. 

Cinnamon, who is outside counsel for the American Cable Association, the lobbying group for independent operators, said that in preparation for the digital transition cable operators need to be asking themselves three questions.

Those are: How will my system deliver the Big Four broadcasters’ signals after Feb. 17 next year?; how will my system meet the regulatory dual-carriage and HDTV carriage requirements?; and if I can’t meet the digital must-carry requirements, what relief do I need?

Cinnamon also offered some suggestions for operators who will be negotiating retransmission-consent deals with TV stations in the brand-new all-digital world.

For example, new retransmission-consent contracts need to give cable operators the right to down convert a broadcaster’s digital signal to analog, according to Cinnamon.

And if a cable system plans to go all-digital, broadcasters need to be made aware of that, and it needs to be factored into retransmission-consent renewals, according to Cinnamon.

“You need to negotiate terms if you go all-digital,” he told the NCTC members.

In terms of dual must-carry, the FCC has said it will consider hardship waivers for systems of 552 MHz or less based on lack of capacity to fulfill the requirement, Cinnamon said.

The ACA says small systems can’t afford the legal fees to apply for such waivers, and has advocated a blanket exemption for such independent operators.

In the meantime, in considering filing for a waiver small operators should consider factors like the cost of complying with dual must-carry, the technical feasibility and time required and the consequences of not getting a waiver, like possibly having to shut down, Cinnamon said.

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