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Distant Digital Stays in Sat Bill

In response to broadcasters' concerns, the Senate Commerce Committee has added restrictions on its bill allowing satellite-TV companies to import digital network programming from distant markets.

Before DBS carriers can import network DTV signals, they must first begin carrying the analog versions of the markets' local stations.

DBS carriers and the bill's sponsors say that letting satellite distributors import digital signals will speed the DTV transition by giving more viewers incentive to buy digital sets. They noted that many local broadcast stations are not offering DTV to their full markets and that customers unserved by broadcast DTV need an option for getting digital programming.

Broadcasters worry that once DBS carriers sign up customers for imported DTV, they will not honor rules requiring them to switch those customers to local channels when DTV service becomes available in a market.

Allowing imported DTV signals is favored by the Digital Transition Coalition, a group seeking to speed the DTV switch. "Consumers throughout the nation, especially in rural America, are waiting to see the benefits of digital technology and Congress has taken an important step in making that a reality," the group said in a statement.

The Commerce Committee's bill is one of four satellite TV bills working their way through Congress that must be melded together before final passage.

Other version have already been passed by the House Commerce and Judiciary Committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee. Importation of network DTV signals is the most controversial issue.

Neither Judiciary Committee bill address the issue and the Senate Judiciary Committee has complained that their Senate Commerce counterparts stepped on Judiciary's jurisdiction by tackling the matter.

Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain conceded that point and agreed to work out a deal with Judiciary Committee leaders.

The Senate Commerce Committee bill also would give the FCC two years to create permanent rules for deciding when subscribers are eligible for imported digital signals.

Satellite TV legislation must be passed this year because DBS carriers' right to transmit distant network analog signals expires at the end of 2004. Other provision of the Senate Commerce bill would give Echostar 18 months after passage to phase out its "two-dish" strategy of making some subscribers install two antennas to get all the local TV channels in a market.