Cablers Seek More Dual-Carriage Exemptions

Operators of small (less than 552 MHz) cable systems have convinced the FCC they should be exempt from the commission’s September 2007 order for dual digital-analog carriage of local broadcasters.

But the exemption may not be enough, say some cable companies, and it should be broadened to include systems that have very few subscribers or homes passed, regardless of the system bandwidth.

Charter Communications, the nation’s third-largest cabler with some 5.7 million subscribers, reminded the FCC that it has justified relief in other matters for systems with fewer than 5,000 subs. Charter said dual carriage on all its systems with more than 552 MHz but fewer than 3,000 subscribers will top $5.8 million.

Mediacom, the nation’s eight-largest MSO, with 1.5 million subscribers, called for an exemption for its 45 systems with fewer than 500 subs (averaging just 96 subs) and fewer than 2,500 homes passed.

In a May 2 FCC filing, Mediacom cited its expected costs for compliance. The digital transition itself means the systems need demodulators at $2,400 per channel per system. For one system in Illinois with 15 local broadcasters and just 10 subscribers, that’s $36,000, or $3,600 per sub, to receive digital signals and convert them to analog.

The dual-carriage requirement would add still more burdens—namely an 8-VSB processor, at $1,600 or more per channel, the company said.

These small systems offer very low-cost service—as little as $11.35 per month for its most limited packages, the company said.

“Absent an appropriate exemption, the most apparent destiny for systems like these is for them to be shut down,” Mediacom told the FCC.

Charter cites as an example one of its Chicago-area systems with 2,117 basic subs, 1,238 digital subs and 15 local broadcasters—14 carried only in analog and one in both digital and analog. For each of the 14 stations to be added in digital, the company will need an 8-VSB processor ($2,400), a digital mux ($1,892), a QAM modulator ($440) and, in each of about 20 percent of the cases, a digital receive antenna ($3,000). In all, the company pegs simulcasting costs at $77,000 for the small system.

“The high capital investment cost per customer of digital simulcasting to small consumer groups disproportionately harms rural customers who would be better served by investment in increased broadband deployment and speeds nationwide, even in our smallest communities,” Charter told the FCC May 6.

The company’s filings don’t mention HD carriage of the local stations, which is also required for those local stations that broadcast in HD.

NAB reminded the commission not to forget about the viewers.

“As it considers such requests, the commission should particularly focus on the needs of consumers, many of whom have invested in new television sets with the expectation of watching high-definition (HD) content, including the HD signals of local broadcast stations,” NAB said in a filing.