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Small Cablers Can Skip HD

If a local station broadcasts in HD, and a local consumer buys an HDTV set, the local cable system will carry that HD signal, FCC commissioners said a year ago.

But they left open the possibility that small systems would be exempt from the HD carriage requirement. And now the commission has created an exemption for small systems.

The rule, adopted Thursday night, will exempt all systems of 552 MHz or less, and all systems with fewer than 2,500 subscribers that are not owned by either of the nation’s two largest providers, Comcast and Time Warner Cable. The exemption will apply for three years following the Feb. 17, 2009, full-power analog TV shutoff.

In a last-ditch lobbying effort, NAB said a blanket waiver would add to consumer confusion. NAB pointed to the cable industry’s own commercials, which claim cable providers “will take care of all that transition stuff” for viewers.

Cable operators had pointed to small, no-frills systems, particularly in rural areas, that serve only a few hundred subs or even fewer. Their only recourse against the HDTV requirement would have been to seek an individualized waiver based on financial hardship

Charter Communications—a company some $20 billion in debt—told the FCC that dual analog/digital carriage was too expensive for small systems, HD or otherwise. In May, it told the commission that dual carriage of three channels would cost $15,996; carriage of five would cost $26,660.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association had sought a broader exemption, covering systems with 5,000 or fewer subs.