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NCTA objects to broadcasters’ DTV transition proposal in letter to Powell

In a letter to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the head of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) said a plan from broadcasters for completing the DTV transition amounted to “an attempt to embargo return” of spectrum used for analog transmission.

The letter from NCTA president and CEO Robert Sachs was responding to a plan put forth in late October by a group consisting of stations, networks and the NAB, spelling out the steps the FCC should take for broadcasters to complete the analog-to-digital transition successfully. See “FCC must address cable, satellite questions before analog switchoff, says group.” According to Sachs’ letter, the broadcasters’ proposal makes clear that before they “even contemplate” returning their analog spectrum, “the government must guarantee that cable operators will be forced to carry multiple streams of programming from each broadcaster, whether that station is carried pursuant to must carry or retransmission consent.”

Sachs reminded Powell that the commission already has made clear that a dual carriage obligation raises “serious constitutional problems.” According to the cable association chief, the broadcasters’ proposal “imposes a ‘back door’ dual carriage obligation.”

In particular, Sachs objected to provisions of the broadcast plan calling for cable operators to transmit broadcasters’ full digital signal from the head-end or provide analog set subscribers with downconverters or to send them a downconverted signal.

According to Sachs, it’s estimated that 141 million analog TVs are connected to cable. Providing a downconverter for each — priced between $50 and $200 apiece — would require cable companies to spend $7 billion to $28 billion industrywide. That cost would surely be passed on to subscribers.

“This multibillion dollar tax on cable customers is wholly unnecessary,” he said in the letter. “The digital transition for cable customers with analog sets can be seamless and cost-free if cable operators are permitted to take a broadcaster’s digital signal and modify its format so that it is transmitted as an analog signal over the cable system.”

For his part, Powell has reportedly put his plan for a January 2009 switchover on hold.

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