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CableLabs Interface Specs Will Enable Off-Air DTV Reception

The cable television industry's technology consortium, CableLabs, made a surprising announcement last week--they are working on cable interface specifications that will allow reception of off-air DTV broadcast signals!

CableLabs provides no technical details on the initiative. They only say that interface specifications would allow devices to receive digital off-air television signals and that these signals could be delivered seamlessly through a cable set-top box. The new concept would pair off-air digital television with cable-delivered programming.

CableLabs said, "This technology would allow consumers to receive broadcast television signals as an integrated viewing experience."

While RF Report focuses primarily on RF technology, I can't help but wonder why would cable operators want to provide a way for viewers to watch non-cable programming? If you've read my recent RF Technology columns you know that the fifth generation ATSC tuners allow reception of most stations in many areas with even a small indoor antenna. If cable TV companies can provide broadcasters' secondary multicast channels over-the-air without giving up bandwidth on their cable system, it's a win for them. Since the programming would come through the cable set-top box many viewers would think they were getting it from the cable company.

A more ominous reason, at least for broadcasters, is that this would provide an "out" for cable operators that don't want to agree to broadcasters' demands for retransmission consent fees for their HDTV channels. I know that in Hawaii, ABC is the only broadcaster whose HDTV signal is available on digital cable. In several markets, broadcasters and cable operators have not been able to agree on HDTV retransmission consent costs. With this new set-top box, if the signals are received off-air, then the cable companies can "provide" the HDTV signal without paying any extra fees to broadcasters.

Of course, the risk to cable companies would be if subscribers realize they could get these programs without paying for cable. However, unless the popular cable channels like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and HBO become available off-air, I doubt cable companies have much to worry about.