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FCC orders cable operators to provide dual viewability

In a compromise between broadcasters and cable operators, the FCC has voted to require cable operators to make broadcast signals viewable on both analog and digital receivers until February 2012.

In addition to carrying the broadcasters’ digital signals, cable operators must convert those signals to analog for viewers with older receivers. This can be achieved either by converting digital signals to an analog format at the headend, or by providing analog subscribers with converter boxes.

Under the rules, cable systems must carry HD broadcast signals in HD format, and the FCC reaffirmed its current material degradation standard. Cable operators must carry broadcast signals so that the picture quality is at least as good as the quality of any other programming carried on the system.

The compromise, which will likely insulate the new rules from lawsuits, offered cable operators a victory by not requiring them to carry all bits that a broadcaster transmits. Broadcasters had wanted such a definition as protection against cable operators degrading their signals.

Both the NAB and NCTA agreed with the ruling. However, smaller cable operators, as represented by American Cable Association (ACA), feared that a requirement to carry both digital and analog signals would put them out of business.

The FCC, acknowledging the problem, said it would entertain waivers from cable systems with activated channel capacity of 552MHz or less. ACA president Matt Polka said that even the possibility of waivers “offers little meaningful relief, requiring these systems to engage in, and pay for, yet another process at the FCC, with the outcome far from certain.”

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein issued a partial dissent over that issue. “I must dissent in part because the Order does not provide small, often rural, cable operators a much-needed exemption from the carriage obligations in this Order. Unlike the major MSOs and LECs, small system operators face serious financial and technological resource constraints, and the Commission should consider these limitations moving forward,” Adelstein said. “It is not fair to ask these tiny rural systems to engage lawyers in Washington when a simple exemption would have sufficed.”