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Cable Carriage: Where the Bits Are

Nary a week after the broadcast lobby pitched its case for multicast must-carry to a group of media reporters, the cable lobby responded with a pie chart designed to prove once and for all that multicast must-carry is evil.

The gist of the argument is thus: the National Association of Broadcasters wants must-carry for whatever its members can stuff into a 6 MHz channel, whether it's several digital multicast feeds or a single one in hi-def (although the days of devoting 6 MHz to one HD feed are waning). The broadcast lobby argues that this proposal would take up no more cable bandwidth than a currently must-carried analog feed.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association says otherwise, primarily because of what it refers to as a "compromise" on digital must-carry.

"That was a big give on our part," said NCTA chief Kyle McSlarrow.

The NCTA's "big give" has to do with simultaneous carriage of analog and digital broadcast signals, but not in the way typically referred to as "dual must-carry. And this is where all must-carry devolves into semantics.

Technically, must-carry in its present form covers a broadcaster's primary video signal, 99-plus percent of which are analog.

Multicast must-carry would encompass all the feeds a broadcaster could squeeze into 6 MHz of spectrum.

Digital must-carry infers compulsory cable carriage of the primary video feed in a digital broadcast signal. Must-carry law does not specifically mention digital, but it can be argued that the current mandate does not have to mention digital since, when analog goes away, the only available primary video signal will be digital.

In broadcast parlance, "dual must-carry" means compulsory cable carriage of the unmolested feeds of analog and digital broadcast signals from the satellite downlink to subscriber homes.

While avoiding the phrase "dual must-carry," the NCTA is nonetheless saying it has compromised by agreeing to carry broadcast signals in analog and digital formats. And in some cases, cable operators are providing both formats in the broadcast sense of dual must-carry. Often, digital broadcast signals, particularly those in hi-def, are used as a marketing carrot for cable offerings. And analog feeds are simply must-have, since 45 million cable households are still analog-only.

Therein lies the rub.

The NAB claims that multicasting will take up no more cable bandwidth than currently must-carried analog signals, but the NCTA says the bandwidth currently used for analog signals will still be used for analog signals after analog broadcasting goes away. The NCTA wants the right to do digital-to-analog conversion at headends in order to serve analog customers. Some cable operators will send out the so-called "downconverted" signal to all households (yet another point of contention with the NAB). Others will transmit both a digital and downconverted signal, which, the NCTA says, will take up just as much bandwidth as any old analog signal. Therefore, the amount of bandwidth cable will reclaim in the event of an analog shutdown is not equal to the amount now occupied by all analog broadcast signals.

Rather than go into the eye-glazing details of the bit-based argument, the NCTA simply issued a study saying that multicast must-carry would cost the cable industry up to $115.6 billion in market valuation. The study, provided by Kane Reece Associates, is intended to shore up NCTA's long-held argument that expanded must-carry amounts to "taking" and violates the Fifth Amendment.

Oddly enough, the study includes a pie chart that suggest must-carry channels take up roughly 5 percent of a 750 MHz cable plant. The majority of cable bandwidth, according to the chart--about half--is occupied by analog cable channels.