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Alternative plan calls for cable to downconvert at the set-top, not the headend

Responding to a proposal last month by the FCC Media Bureau setting 2009 for completion of the digital transition and condoning downconversion of broadcasters’ digital signals by cable TV and satellite providers, a group of industry heavyweights put forward their own alternative in a letter to Commission Chairman Michael Powell.

In the letter, the NAB, Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), ABC, CBS, NBC and FBC Television Affiliates Association objected to the bureau’s plan to count cable and satellite homes as digital when they receive downconverted analog versions of digital signals. They argued that this approach defeats the purpose of the 85 percent threshold currently in place because “Congress intended for consumers to have the choice of viewing local broadcast signals in digital format over new receivers or in analog format with converters attached to their old analog sets.” Cable and over-the-air homes with analog sets not equipped with downconverters don’t quality, the letter said.

There are alternatives that expedite the analog-to-digital conversion that don’t violate the act authorizing the conversion or Congress’s intent, the letter said, pointing to a joint MSTV-NAB proposal from 2003.

The associations then proposed that cable systems be allowed to “terminate carriage of a station’s analog channel if the cable system (a) passes through the station’s digital signal to all digital television receivers and (b) downconverts the digital signal for receipt at no extra charge on all analog-only receivers for carriage on the analog basic tier.”

This approach, the letter said:

  • Ensures non-subscription content in digital signals is passed through without material degradation;
  • Allows MVPD households with analog sets to continue receiving local broadcasts by downconverting at the set;
  • Counts toward the 85 percent threshold only households that receive undegraded digital signals, which is consistent with the act.

Other steps the commission can take to speed the transition are to conclude negotiations with Canada to provide interim DTV channels for all U.S. stations and to develop final DTV channel agreement with Canada and Mexico. The commission should also require stations with analog and DTV assignments in the “core” to make channel election in 2005, the letter said.

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