Lawmakers Speak up for Small Cablers

Small cable were unhappy with the September order by the FCC for what some call mandatory triple carriage of broadcast signals (HD, SD and analog) starting Feb. 18, 2009. The order allows small operators to apply for a waiver; but as the cable operators said, if they can't afford to upgrade their plants to comply with the order, what makes the commission think they can afford Washington lawyers?

The small operators have said that they should be given a blanket exemption from the order, instead of having to seek the waiver. Last week, several lawmakers from rural states said they agreed, writing the FCC in favor of the exemption for operators with less than 552 MHz.

"These small operators should not have to bear the cost of hiring attorneys to navigate through the waiver process, particularly when the outcome is unknown," wrote Sens. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), all members Senate Commerce Committee.

Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.) took extra aim at FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's word choice, focusing on an Oct. 17 House hearing when Martin, under questioning, denied that there was a mandate for "dual must-carry;" Martin maintained that cable operators who did not go to all-digital plants were choosing the dual analog-digital route and foregoing the opportunity for single, digital carriage (the additional mandatory HD carriage notwithstanding.)

"While I appreciate your signature cleverness in shaping semantics, I submit that a dual-carriage requirement by any other name remains a dual-carriage requirement in practice," she wrote Martin.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Reps. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), Marion Berry (D-Ark.), Tim Holden (D-Pa.) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.) have also weighed in with Martin in favor the small cablers.

Also adding to Martin's grief were 23 Republican members of the House Commerce Committee, who spoke out Tuesday against Martin's invoking of the so-called "70/70" trigger, a provision Martin says gives the FCC more regulatory authority over cable if the service is available to 70 percent or more of the nation, and if 70 percent or more of those households subscribe to cable.

"Such actions are unsupported by the record of significant competition in the video programming marketplace, and would be harmful to innovation and consumers," the lawmakers wrote.