FCC Proposes Rules for Broadcast Station Must-carry After February 2009

How will broadcast stations be carried on cable once analog broadcasting ends in February 2009? When a broadcaster shuts off its analog transmitter, will its analog cable channel disappear? If the analog cable channel doesn't go away, will the cable company have to carry both a downconverted analog signal and, without "material degradation." the station's digital signal? For how long? Although the analog shutdown is less than two years away, there are no definitive answers to those questions. The FCC is moving to provide some answers and last week issued a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) FCC 07-71 to propose answers and request comments.

The FCC is required, under Section 614(b)(4)(B) of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended, to revise its mandatory broadcast signal carriage rules to reflect the DTV transition. The NPRM states, "...addressing these issues now will provide digital broadcasters and cable operators with adequate time to prepare to comply with any rules that we adopt."

The NPRM devotes considerable space to the question of "material degradation" and suggests an option of carrying all content bits the broadcast transmits or, at a minimum, providing broadcast signals at the same quality level as other broadcast or non-broadcast cable channels. Refer to the NPRM for the full discussion. Converting broadcast DTV signals to MPEG-4, as is done for many DBS HDTV channels, would preserve quality with fewer bits, but would preclude subscribers from receiving local HDTV signals via cable unless they had an MPEG-4 set-top box for each TV set.

My take on this is that if cable companies provide any analog TV services, they should provide downconverted must-carry broadcast TV signals in analog as well. One question is whether broadcasters should have to pay for the equipment for the downconversion, as is required now for DTV-only stations seeking analog cable carriage. Regarding the "material degradation" issue, my opinion is that the entire broadcast station's transport stream, including any non-subscription multicast channels, should be transmitted by the cable company in unencrypted QAM so that cable subscribers will be able to decode the programs on DTV sets without the need for a cable set-top box. This will ensure broadcast stations are available on any secondary DTV sets with QAM tuners but not a cable set-top box. While adding the free multicast channels may be a challenge, at a minimum cable companies should be required to carry the primary DTV program unencrypted using MPEG-2 compression in a form that can be received on current ATSC/QAM receivers without a set-top box.

The worst scenario would be for consumers to be required to rent or purchase set-top boxes to receive free broadcast TV channels for every receiver, PVR or VCR in their house. I don't think the FCC will let this happen. Ideally, even those cable subscribers that don't pay extra for digital TV will be able to receive their local DTV broadcast signals.

Fortunately, many local cable systems are already providing unencrypted broadcast DTV to all subscribers. To see if your local cable system is one of them, visit the AVS Forum Local HDTV Info and Reception section. My local cable provider, Oceanic Cable, owned by Time Warner, provides unencrypted QAM digital broadcast feeds for the major broadcasters in my market. Even though I don't subscribe to digital cable, I can watch the local DTV channels using my AutumnWave OnAir GT or DVICO FusionHDTV5 USB Gold USB tuners. It would make sense for the FCC to require all cable systems to do the same.