FCC Orders HD Phase-in for DBS

The FCC Wednesday adopted the satellite industry’s proposal for its carriage of local HD broadcasters, phasing in local HD channels through February 2013.

The FCC did not release details of the order, which is still being finalized by staff, and some details of the carriage were left for a further proceeding. But Chairman Kevin J. Martin confirmed in a news conference Thursday that the plan significantly reflected the DirecTV/EchoStar proposal.

That proposal called for the operators to bring all local HDTV signals to 15 percent of the HD markets they serve within one year of the February 2009 end of full-power analog broadcasts. After two years (by February 2011), they’d be required to carry HDTV broadcasters on 30 percent of the markets they serve. After three years (in February 2012), they’d need to serve 60 percent, and after four years (in 2013) they’d need to carry all the HDTV broadcasters in the markets where they provide local service.

DirecTV already carries HDTV in 52 percent of its 148 local markets, surpassing the 30 percent benchmark the companies propose for 2011. Dish has said it plans to offer local HDTV in 100 of its 174 local markets (nearly 60 percent) by the end of 2008, despite an anomaly in the March 14 launch of one of its satellites that could lessen its useful life.

DirecTV also said Thursday it successfully launched DirecTV 11, a fresh satellite that will further boost HD capacity, enabling DirecTV to deliver up to 150 national HD channels when the satellite goes into service this fall. With the additional capacity, DirecTV will also expand its delivery of local HD channels to more than 100 markets, representing 84 percent of U.S. TV households, the company said.

Read more about the recent EchoStar and DirecTV satellite launches in RF Report.

Broadcasters had lobbied for a faster HD rollout and called on the FCC to challenge the DBS operators’ assertions that they lacked the satellite capacity such a rollout. Broadcasters also have argued that the operators should be forced to carry all local stations in all markets (as cable companies must do in the markets they serve).

Instead, DirecTV has pledged to use a hybrid DBS/ATSC system so viewers in the smallest markets will be able to view local broadcasters’ signals. NAB and many local broadcasters have argued that such a solution will leave many viewers, especially those in rural areas, unable to view the local stations.

This “hybrid solution” would see an unserved household buy its own ASTC antenna, then pay $99 to have DirecTV install it plus $50 more for a DirecTV-built ATSC tuner to be integrated with the set-top box.

The March 19 order was the second chance the FCC had to expand broadcasters’ bidding. Feb. 25, the FCC approved Liberty Media’s $11 billion acquisition of DirecTV stock from News Corp., without forcing DirecTV to provide all 210 DMAs with local-into-local service—something broadcasters note News Corp. said was coming back in 2003, when it lobbied for approval of its acquisition of DirecTV.

Broadcasters will take another crack at DBS carriage of local stations in Congress, where Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich, has introduced a bill to require universal local-into-local satellite coverage starting in February 2009.