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AT&T Seeks Reprieve on Stelar Sunset

Long-haul truckers on the front lines of food and medical supply deliveries and sheltering-at-home viewers relying on distant signals for some of their network programming could be cut off at the end of May.

That is the deadline for DirecTV customers to lose those signals per Congress’s decision to sunset the STELAR blanket distant-signal license.

DirecTV parent AT&T has been circulating letters to the Hill reminding legislators of the deadline and calling for an extension while it negotiated for carriage with the networks. AT&T said it had yet to strike a deal and blamed broadcasters for not granting the extension themselves.

“Nothing prevents broadcasters from agreeing to authorize satellite providers to carry distant signals on a temporary basis to ensure no interruption of critical news and information and to allow time for a smoother transition for already-anxious consumers,” AT&T said in the letter. “To date, they have been unwilling to do so.”

Broadcasters argue that AT&T is the one holding the cards since all it has to do, per the terms of that STELAR sunset, is deliver local signals in the last dozen or so smallest markets where it currently doesn’t. Then, the blanket license for those truckers and “short markets” is restored and the signals stay up.

One source said AT&T had not made efforts to provide local station signals in any of those markets. Unlike cable operators, satellite operators have no must carry obligation to carry local TV signals. But if they do carry one station in a market, they must carry them all.

“The latest advocacy from AT&T makes clear it has never intended to provide local TV-station signals to those viewers receiving network broadcast programming from thousands of miles away," National Association of Broadcasters executive VP Dennis Wharton said.

Regardless of who isn’t giving in in the carriage tug-of-war, the Hill is unlikely to let the standoff continue without pressuring both sides to come to a deal before truckers get their signals pulled in a pandemic.

Negotiations were ongoing at press time, according to a source familiar with them, and there is still time for bluffing and high-road exchanging before some kind of extension is — likely — granted.