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NYC Cablevision Customers Could Lose Unencrypted Programming

Subscribers to Cablevision, New York City’s cable provider, could lose access to basic cable programming if the company gets FCC approval to discontinue carrying unencrypted channels.

After writing about ClearQAM problems, I received a lot of email from both cable companies and subscribers describing the difficulties they are having with ClearQAM reception. Cablevision wants to take a different approach—drop all analog channels and eliminate unencrypted digital channels. Subscribers in Cablevision's New York City franchise areas won't be able to receive any channels unless they have a TV set equipped with a CableCard or Cablevision set-top box, According to Cablevision Systems Corporation's Petition for Waiver [PDF], it is requesting the waiver so that it can turn off basic cable subscribers' service without the need to dispatch a truck to physically disconnect the cable.

Cablevision wants to drop unencrypted channels “effective upon its upcoming conversion to all-digital programming.” It claims a grant of a waiver to the rule requiring unencrypted basic programming will “have virtually no negative impact on customers who, as subscribers to a cable service that has already migrated to 'all-digital', will already have set top boxes or CableCards.” Apparently Cablevision hasn't noticed the growing number of cable subscribers watching basic programming on ClearQAM TV sets. Cablevision even goes so far as to deny the possibility of digital cable reception without a set top box. “Today's cable subscribers typically do not have an expectation—or the capability—of receiving digital cable services without a set-top box.” (Emphasis added), Cablevision said in its petition.

Should the FCC grant Cablevision's petition, it would likely set a precedent for other cable companies that might want to collect a set-top box or CableCard rental fee for every TV set in the house. As I recently reported, some cable companies are working hard to make basic programming available in ClearQAM, with the correct channel numbers and PSIP. While there is some merit to Cablevision's argument that eliminating unencrypted channel will make it easier to turn on and turn off subscribers, saving fuel and reducing green house gas emissions, I suspect the real reason is that forcing set-top boxes or CableCards on every TV set will make it easier for them to sell premium packages and on-demand video.

The Petition (Proceeding 09-168) appeared on the FCC Electronic Comment Filing System Sept. 24. As of midnight Wednesday, Sept. 30, two comments had been filed, both opposing the waiver. While I'm tempted to welcome Cablevision's plan because it will lead to more viewers switching to over the air reception on second sets, I can't help feeling this is unfair to lower income households that can't afford to rent extra set-top boxes and to people that want to watch or record basic programming on their Slingbox, PC or laptop.

You can file your comments on Cablevision's petition by going to the FCC Electronic Comment File Submission web site and entering 09-168 in Box 1 “Proceeding”. Fill in the rest of the boxes, then upload your comments using “Send Comment Files to FCC (Attachments)” section at the bottom of the page. Comments are accepted as PDF (preferred – use PDF Creator to print to a PDF from any program), or as Microsoft Word or Excel files; WordPerfect files, Lotus 123 files, or plain (ASCII) text files.

Comments from Cablevision subscribers in New York City will probably carry the most weight, but comments from others outside the area could affect how the FCC treats similar requests from other cable companies. If you support unencrypted basic digital programming and your local cable service is providing it, might be worth mentioning and commending them for supporting ClearQAM reception.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.