Local digital stations via cable: FCC muddies waters

April 25th, 2006

Analog cable-TV subscribers could lose access to local stations in 2009, and FCC chairman Kevin Martin is concerned.

“It can’t be that the analog-cable subscribers are no longer going to be able to watch broadcast television because now [TV stations] are broadcasting in digital and that’s only carried on the digital tier.”

Martin’s remarks today, at a National Association of Broadcasters breakfast in Las Vegas, raise new questions about what provisions cable companies can make to deliver local stations to non-digital customers when analog broadcasts end on Feb. 17, 2009.

The FCC, he said, would need to focus on cable’s legal obligation to ensure that digital-TV signals are viewable in subscriber homes with only analog reception equipment….

In interpreting the law, Martin said, “I think viewable is the key term. I think Congress passed a law and said cable operators have to make sure the broadcast signals they are carrying are viewable by everyone they are serving.”

The “viewable” requirement is contained in the Communications Act of 1992. Yet under the digital TV act that was signed earlier this year, cable companies will not be permitted to downconvert broadcasters’ digital signals.

Martin appears to believe that cable companies should be allowed to downconvert a station’s signal to analog and transmit it to customer homes—which is the position of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. NAB, however, maintains that cable systems may not do so. While NAB president David Rehr’s comments suggest a concern about ensuring HDTV fidelity, the broadcasters’ stance may also be angling for either dual carriage of analog and digital versions of local stations or payments to broadcasters for analog retransmission agreements.

No one is disputing that cable companies may deliver local channels digitally to a customer and make the conversion to analog in the home via a set-top converter box. But that doesn’t help subscribers who do not have digital cable service in the first place.

Allowing continued analog delivery of local stations may not even require a ruling from the FCC, says Martin, according to his interpretation of the applicable statutes.

For cable viewers, this is an important story, and I suspect we haven’t heard the end of it.

• Link: Multichannel News

Comments (2)

  1. Alan Hoffman says:

    Do the cable companies have to sell the D to A TV adaper rather than rental only?

  2. Steven Sande says:

    If a cable box is needed, the cable company should be happy to rent it to you.

    New FCC rules are making cable companies switch to digital cable boxes that use CableCARD technology. The rules are intended to create a consumer market for cable boxes that you can actually buy, as well as supporting digital TVs with CableCARD slots. But as far as I know, nobody is making consumers buy their own cable boxes, nor are cable companies required to sell the boxes.

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