Digital must-carry to be settled within months

The FCC will make a final decision over the next two months regarding whether cable television operators will be required to carry both the analog and digital signals of television stations.

Commission Chairman Michael Powell said the FCC would resolve the question soon while he attended the NCTA (National Cable and Telecommunications) annual convention in Chicago, Ill.

In January, the commission made a preliminary ruling that cable systems did not have to carry the digital signal of TV broadcasters in addition to their existing analog signals. Many industry watchers at the time expected the ruling because they questioned whether the commission had the constitutional authority to mandate must carry for multiple signals from a single broadcaster.

The final decision is important to cable operators and broadcasters alike. Broadcasters have argued that cable service providers act as a de facto gatekeeper on what most Americans watch on television since between 70 and 80 percent of TV households subscribe to cable. If cable system operators do not carry both the broadcaster’s existing analog service and its new digital television signal, viewers will have little incentive to invest in new digital TVs, they contend.

Cable operators counter that bandwidth on their systems is a finite resource and that it would place a burden on system operators to be required to carry every local broadcaster’s analog and digital signals because broadcasters may choose to offer up to six channels with digital programming.

Speaking at the NCTA convention, Powell said the commission had hoped that the cable and broadcast industries could have resolved the must-carry issue on its own. “We’ve been disappointed it hasn’t happened faster, he said. However, he warned, “there will be a final resolution.”

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