Willner: Nix to Dual Must-Carry

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WASHINGTON -Representing cable operators before the Senate Commerce Committee last Thursday, Insight Communications Co. CEO Michael Willner contended that dual must-carry would not expedite the conversion to digital broadcasting.

Cable "doesn't want to be the scapegoats for broadcasters' problems," Willner told the panel that convened to assess the progress of over-the-air digital TV.

Broadcasters were represented by Jeff Sagansky, CEO of Paxson Communications Corp., and Ben Tucker, executive vice president of Fisher Broadcasting. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the commerce panel chairman, called the digital TV transition "a mess" and grilled the broadcasters about their industry's lack of progress. McCain said there was not "a snowball's chance in Gila Bend, Arizona," of reaching the agreed-upon 85-percent DTV penetration level by 2006.

"The broadcasters blame the FCC, local zoning boards, standards disputes, equipment manufacturers, content providers and Congress-in short everybody but themselves," McCain said.

By contrast, Willner testified that cable had spent $42 billion to upgrade its infrastructure and was succeeding in the transition to digital television-adding new channels, interactive services, high-speed Internet access and cable telephony, he said.

"It is important to note that the cable industry's digital transition is happening with our own capital, and without grants or subsidies from the government," Willner added.

Willner rejected the idea that cable should carry both broadcasters' digital and analog channels.

"Frankly I thought the free grant of that valuable spectrum was ample incentive," he said.

The value of the spectrum that the government gave broadcasters for the government for DTV transition has been valued at up to $70 billion, and McCain repeatedly expressed his belief that the spectrum belonged to taxpayers, not to broadcasters.

Sagansky and Tucker said dual must-carry was essential to meeting the deadline and ensuring the success of the broadcasters' transition to DTV. They both noted that cable and satellite controlled access to 70 percent of American homes.

The broadcasters also emphasized the importance of interoperability between broadcast and cable signals in completing the DTV transition.

Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) voiced concerns that a delay in the return of analog spectrum by broadcasters would hamper development of wireless broadband technology, which is important to the rural states they represent.

The cable industry mainly avoided criticism from the panel.

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