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House Subcommittee Thwacks SHVIA Double Dishes & Distant Signals

The satellite guys lost round one in their efforts to continue the practice of importing distant broadcast signals into areas where same-network broadcast stations are otherwise available. The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet passed a bill Wednesday to renew the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act of 1999 (SHVIA) for another five years, but slapped restrictions on distant signals and kyboshed EchoStar's use of a second dish for providing local analog signals.

The bill does reauthorize current law allowing the provision of distant broadcast signals in areas where viewers can't receive local programming, and it adds consumer privacy protections.

The smack-down on distant signals came as a blow to the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association (SBCA), which had lobbied hard to retain current distant-signal importation in areas where it's already being done.

"This bill has a lot to offer the broadcasters but very little for consumers and the satellite industry," said SBCA President Richard DalBello. "It seems to me that Congress is missing a great opportunity to expand consumer choice and increase competition."

NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts seemed to agree with DalBello.

"We are pleased with the bipartisan approach that the Subcommittee took in drafting this important piece of legislation," Fritts said in a statement. "We are particularly pleased the subcommittee moved decisively to end EchoStar's two-dish practice and rejected an ill-guided proposal to allow distant digital signal importation."

The SBCA was also flummoxed by the subcommittee's rejection of its proposal to import hi-def broadcast signals into markets where local broadcasters were not yet transmitting in HD, but DalBello detected a hint of support for the measure by certain subcommittee members.

"I hope as we move from the subcommittee to the full committee, discussion on the proposal to allow satellite carriers to offer an HD distant signal to digitally-unserved customers will continue to move forward," he said.

The subcommittee's markup on the bill included a rider requiring both cable and satellite providers to offer a la carte programming, something favored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, (R-Ariz.). McCain dismisses the assertion by cable and DBS operators that a la carte would be a logistical nightmare. Comcast alone would be looking at sending out 27 million individualized channel line-ups. The bill is expected to be taken up by the full House Commerce Committee within the next two weeks.