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DirecTV Getting In Tune With Rural Broadcasters

Seeking to address complaints by rural broadcasters, DirecTV this week told federal regulators it has begun manufacturing a tuner that will allow subscribers to pick up the local signals of TV stations.

DirecTV filed a letter Wednesday with the Federal Communications Commission in response to broadcast groups in Kansas, North Dakota and Texas that want the satellite provider to be required to offer local TV signals in every U.S. market by year-end.

In its letter, DirecTV said it has started production on an ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) unit that will permit subscribers in markets where it doesn’t offer local-to-local to pick up the over-the-air digital signals of area TV stations. The tuners connect directly to set-top boxes.

The nation’s largest satellite provider expects to have enough ATSC inventory to start distributing the tuners in March, with a rollout to all affected markets expected by September of October.

DirecTV is now offering so-called local-to-local service, delivering local broadcast signals by satellite, in 144 markets, representing more than 94% of the 210 total U.S. TV households, the company told the FCC. The satellite provider expects to reach 150 markets during the next few months.

DirecTV will charge subscribers a one-time fee, initially set at $50, for the unit, which is 15% less than the company’s actual cost for the tuner, according to its letter.

DirecTV told the FCC it is implementing this strategy “in order to allay concerns raised by certain commenters in this proceeding.”

The Kansas Association of Broadcasters is one of the TV station groups that want the FCC to hold up Liberty Media’s deal to acquire News Corp.’s stake in DirecTV, unless the distributor does local-to-local across the country.

DirecTV noted that some of its set-top boxes have built-in ATSC tuners. Whether the ATSC tuner is built in, or a separate unit, subscribers will need an antenna to bring in the digital signal.

DirecTV will offer installation services to new subscribers at incremental labor cost beyond the cost of installing the satellite antenna; and to existing customers at a flat rate, with is currently $99.

“It is also worth noting that, with few exceptions, subscribers to the overwhelming majority of DirecTV’s programming packages [comprising 98% of its customer base] receive a $3 discount in markets where it does not provide local signals via satellite,” DirecTV told the FCC.