Congress passes satellite transmission bill

Satellite companies will be able to retransmit broadcasters’ television signals for another five years but would have to offer those signals on a single dish, under legislation approved by Congress.

The bill represents a setback for satellite providers like EchoStar Communications, who has argued that capacity constraints require it to split its signal onto two channels Reuters reported.

Broadcasters had complained that less-popular channels are commonly shunted onto the second dish, which some customers choose not to install.

EchoStar, the No. 2 satellite provider under its DISH Network name, said any move to consolidate signals onto one dish would cost the company $100 million, according to Legg Mason analysts.

Satellite providers will have 18 months to phase out the two-dish arrangement under the measure, which passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives as part of a $388 billion year-end spending bill.

The retransmission agreement allows satellite customers in remote areas not served by broadcast TV to view network shows. That provision was set to expire at the end of this year. A similar measure passed the House of Representatives in October.

EchoStar said it was disappointed that it has only 18 months to eliminate its two-dish configuration. However, the company said it would work to meet this tight deadline and to minimize the impact on consumers.

EchoStar also suggested that the new law require terrestrial broadcasters, who have been slow to roll out full-power digital transmissions of their signals, to do some fast work as well. Over the next several years, it said, the bill will allow satellite TV carriers to begin offering distant high-definition TV network channels to many consumers if the local broadcasters lapse on their promises to Congress to begin broadcasting full-power HDTV to their viewers.

The digital white area provision will motivate local broadcasters to build their towers and broadcast at full power in order to serve their communities, the company said. The changes will also help accelerate the digital transition and ensure the return of the 700Mhz spectrum to the government.

The Digital Transition Coalition, a coalition of consumer groups, said the new legislation could provide relief to millions of television viewers, especially those in rural areas who cannot receive local network programming in digital.