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Small Cablers May Get HD Reprieve

Back in September, when the FCC ordered cable companies to get ready to carry local HD signals, Commissioner Michael Copps touted the principle of consumer access to their HDTV.

“The order ensures that cable subscribers have access to broadcasters’ pristine digital signals on day one,” Copps said then. “So if a broadcaster has made the investment to transmit in HD, that’s exactly what cable subscribers will get. That obligation never sunsets and should provide an additional incentive for cable subscribers to purchase digital equipment.”

But Copps and others, including FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, spoke even then about exempting small cable systems from such a bandwidth-hungry rule.

Aug. 22, the small cablers may get their wish. Martin told reporters Aug. 4 he expects the commission to allow small systems—those with 2,500 or fewer subscribers or 550 MHz or less capacity, who are not part of Comcast or Time Warner Cable—to skip the local HD requirement. They could leave subscribers with local SD for three years after the Feb. 17, 2009 full-power analog shutoff date.

Broadcasters have opposed such an exemption. July 24, officers of the Association for Maximum Service Television met with commission staff to warn of the dangers to video quality if cable systems are allowed to downconvert, including fouling up the aspect ratios. MSTV and NAB have maintained that local broadcasters should have the right to decide in what format their content should run on cable.

The American Cable Association, representing small cablers, had called for such a blanket exemption, instead of forcing the operators to seek waivers based on the financial hardship of upgrading small systems to HD.

Charter Communications, the third-largest cabler with some 5.7 million customers, has in particular complained to the FCC about the high cost of DTV and HDTV operations in its many small systems. Charter, which owes creditors more than $20 billion, asked for a broader exemption that would cover systems with up to 5,000 subscribers.

Martin said the exemption would be restricted to cable companies that serve less than 10 percent of the national pay-TV market, meaning only Comcast and Time Warner would be disqualified.