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FCC: Cable Must Carry Local Analog Signal for Three Years—and HD Forever

Late Tuesday the FCC ordered cable operators to provide HD signals of local broadcasters after the end of analog broadcasts in February 2009.

The unanimous commission also ordered that for three years after the analog shutoff, cable operators with analog subscribers would have to continue to provide analog signals by downconverting broadcasters’ DTV signals.

The commission did not go as far as requiring cablers to pass through every digital bit broadcasters provide.

Both NAB and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association praised the ruling, with NCTA calling the ruling the cable industry’s plan.

But not all NCTA members share that upbeat outlook. Comcast, for example, had told the FCC that forcing cable to carry both digital and analog channels would be “indefensible” and unconstitutional.

But NCTA President and CEO Kyle McSlarrow downplayed the dissent, saying that Comcast was a leader in aggressively asserting legal principles shared by the entire industry. Comcast Senior Director spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice declined to comment on the decision or whether Comcast would take it to court, saying only that the NCTA comments spoke for the company.

Small cable operators—those with less than 552 MHz capacity—got sympathy from some commissioners, but all they got in the order was a chance to apply for waivers to the new requirements. Democrat commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said the requirements could inhibit the rollout of other services, such as broadband Internet access, in smaller and rural communities. He also said the smaller systems should have received a blanket waiver instead of having to enlist Washington lawyers and apply for individual exemptions.

The American Cable Association said some of its members could shell out more then $150,000 in equipment to carry the multiple formats. The ruling will slow rural broadband rollout and, and some very small operators could be forced out of business, ACA said in a statement.

The order also calls for more comment on some carriage issues, including the specifics of how cable should handle or convert between 16:9 and 4:3 pictures, and how to further address the concerns of small cable operators.

Also late Tuesday, the commission ruled to extend, for another five years, the ban on exclusive programming contracts between cable operators and programmers with whom they are vertically integrated. The ban is designed to ensure that cable operators have access to programming owned by other cable companies or their owners. The commission gave a five-year extension to the ban in 2002 and will decide again in 2012 whether to let it sunset.