FCC Ponders Digital Cable Petition

Gretchen Gallen
WASHINGTON – The Federal Communications Commission has found itself in the midst of a fiery debate between cable broadcasters and cable operators over the future of digital and high-definition broadcasting.

The issue centers around a "must-carry" rule that would go into effect once 85 percent of U.S. homes can receive digital streams, at which point broadcasters must return their analog channel to the U.S. government.

And while an 85 percent digital saturation point is still nearly a decade away, the FCC, cable operators and broadcasters are already butting heads over laying the groundwork for faster adoption of digital programming.

Current law dictates that cable operators must carry a broadcaster's primary channel, but the advent of digital television has allowed many broadcasters to branch out and offer a more diverse selection of digital channels or one HDTV channel.

The must-carry rule is aimed at something known as "multicasting," in which broadcasters parcel off digital content into numerous channels in addition to maintaining their original channels.

In opposition to several other FCC Commissioners, Chairman Michael Powell is throwing his weight behind cable operators who argue against having to carry the extra channels, claiming that the law only requires them to transmit the broadcaster's primary channel.

Cable operators also argue that the must-carry rule favors broadcast programming over cable-generated programming.

Several years ago the FCC ruled that cable carriers were only required to carry digital transmissions that "most resembled" a broadcasters original analog channel.

But according to groups like the National Association of Broadcasters, multicasting is essential for consumers to receive the full benefits of digital and high-definition television.

"It is vitally important for cable systems to carry all signals offered by local TV stations," said NAB President and CEO Edward O. Fritts said. "NAB will continue to strongly advocate this position as the FCC deliberates this issue."

According to reports, 491 broadcast stations are currently multicasting out of 1,700 broadcast stations.

The FCC will vote on the must-carry rule by Feb. 10.