Cable Group Rebuts NAB Digital Gripes

Washington-Thecable industry is firing back at broadcasters in response to accusations that it, among others, is slowing the transition to digital television.

The National Cable Television Association said broadcasters should get on with digital business plans that are attractive to consumers and resist seeking regulatory handouts from the Federal Communications Commission.

"It's time for them to stop asking for more regulatory favors and to develop such a service to make the transition succeed. Their problems, in short, are not in Washington, and it is [well-nigh] time for Washington to tell them so," the NCTA said in comments filed at the FCC June 16.

Last month, the National Association of Broadcasters urged the FCC to mandate cable carriage of digital- and analog-TV signals, to impose performance standards on digital-TV sets and to ensure compatibility between cable systems and digital-TV sets.

The NAB repeated those requests in a letter a June 19 letter to FCC chairman William Kennard.

Claiming the migration to digital is "faltering," the NAB's letter told Kennard he must "take immediate steps" to ensure the success of digital TV.

"Mr. Chairman, the time for watchful waiting must end," said the two-page letter, signed by NAB TV Board chairman Ben Tucker, senior vice president of Fisher Television Regional Group, and TV Board vice chairman Paul Karpowicz, vice president of LIN Television Corp.

The NCTA has vigorously opposed digital must-carry during the transition, which is scheduled to end in 2006. For his part, Kennard has said at least twice that he is no rush to impose digital must-carry and wants to know more about broadcasters' digital business plans.

Under pressure from the FCC, the NCTA reached a deal with the Consumer Electronics Association on several compatibility issues in March and set labeling issues in May-two developments considered essential to assuring consumers that their digital-TV sets will work when connected to cable.

But the NAB said that although TV stations are spending millions of dollars on the conversion, the FCC, the cable industry and digital-TV-set makers have not been pulling their own weight to the same extent, causing the transition to stall.

The NAB said 134 stations in 49 markets are providing digital TV. NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said stations on average are spending $10 million each to make the conversion.

By May 1, 2002, all commercial TV stations-some 1,600 in total-have to be on the air in digital, according to the FCC's rollout timetable.

The NCTA said the NAB's litany glossed over the fact that broadcasters are hardly united on digital-TV issues. For example, the cable trade group said, TV-station owners remain divided on a key component of their own transition: whether to use the 8 VSB (vestigial sideband) or COFDM (code orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing) transmission standard.

"Indeed, as the record indicates, the broadcasters are still debating among themselves over the appropriate transmission standard for digital broadcasting," the NCTA said.

Digital-transition costs have been heavy on the cable industry. The NCTA said cable operators have spent $31 billion since 1996 to upgrade their systems to provide advanced cable services.

While cable has to pay for its spectrum-wires and signal-generation equipment-and pay 5 percent franchise fees to local governments, broadcasters received their digital spectrum free-of-charge, the NCTA noted.

"The cable industry has never asked for, nor received, any subsidy for such upgrades," the cable trade group added.