DBS Ops: Northpoint Would Vex Our Subs

Washington-Direct-broadcast satellite providers said at least 250,000 of their subscribers would have reception problems if the Federal Communications Commission allows Northpoint Technology Ltd.'s planned competing terrestrial service to share their spectrum.

EchoStar Communications Corp. told the FCC its subscriber interference estimates derived from testing results that Northpoint submitted to the agency.

While claiming Northpoint's estimates understated the threat, EchoStar said the problem would worsen as the DBS industry adds customers. EchoStar said 2 percent of the country's 14 million direct-to-home subscribers would likely experience signal reception problems if Northpoint started transmissions.

Toni Bush, Northpoint's executive vice president, said EchoStar's figures were way off base. "We believe that is a gross exaggeration of the potential interference that we could cause."

EchoStar, again relying on Northpoint submissions to the FCC, said Northpoint has maintained that DBS subscribers with interference problems could relocate their dishes, put up signal shields or upgrade to more advanced equipment.

"In other words, Northpoint's so-called mitigation involves visits to hundreds of thousands of homes to shield, relocate or change the dishes of DBS customers," EchoStar said in an Oct. 24 letter to the FCC.

Bush said Northpoint's system has the potential to cause interference within a half-mile of a transmitter. That being the case, she said, Northpoint would not install transmitters adjacent to densely populated areas.

During interference tests in Washington, D.C., Northpoint placed a transmitter atop a high-rise building near the Potomac River to ensure current DBS subscribers would not be located too close to the transmitter, Bush said.

Because Northpoint's signal would originate from the north and DBS signals originate from the south, Bush added, shielding is not a major issue. A dish mounted on the side of a house is already protected from Northpoint's signal, she said.

"Eighty-six percent [of DBS subscribers] have some kind of natural shielding," Bush said.

According to FCC and industry sources, the agency has determined that Northpoint may share DBS spectrum without causing harmful interference.

Using low-cost transmitters, Northpoint plans to launch a terrestrial service that would include high-speed data, dozens of cable networks and every local TV broadcaster.

Under current law, the FCC must make up its mind by Nov. 29. However, there is debate within the agency on whether it must take an up-or-down vote on granting licenses to Northpoint by that time.

On Oct. 24-the same day EchoStar wrote the FCC-Northpoint filed a letter in which company president Sophia Collier insisted that the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act of 1999 requires the agency issue licenses by Nov. 29.

The DBS industry has claimed its problem with Northpoint was not about keeping a potential competitor out of the market, but about losing subscriber loyalty due to harmful signal interference.

Two weeks ago, Congress passed a law requiring the FCC to conduct tests within 60 days to determine whether Northpoint's signal would interfere with DBS. The provision was in limbo, however, because it was included in a spending bill that President Clinton had promised to veto for unrelated reasons.

Northpoint said the testing requirement did not change what it considers to be the FCC's duty to issue licenses by the end of the month.

Because of the debate over the requirements associated with the Nov. 29 deadline, the FCC may release an order announcing that DBS spectrum sharing can occur without harmful interference.

At about the same time, the FCC would seek public input on various technical issues related to spectrum sharing. The agency might also decide that the spectrum allocation sought by Northpoint should be auctioned to the highest bidder.

Pegasus Communications Corp., for example, has filed an application to use the DBS spectrum for terrestrial services.