FCC Allows Satellite-TV Providers to Phase In HD

Satellite companies gained a victory Thursday when the Federal Communications Commission voted to allow them to phase in a requirement that they carry all HD signals in any market where they carry any after the Feb. 17, 2009, switch to digital TV by all full-power TV stations.

The commission also ruled that DirecTV’s and Dish Network's requirement to carry all TV stations in a market where they carry any extends to DTV signals just as it applies to analog TV stations.

Satellite broadcasters will have four years to phase in delivery of local stations' HD signals, the FCC said, explaining that it recognized the "unique" capacity constraints of satellite and accepted their argument that an immediate mandate would slow the rollout of HD service.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin said the move was an effort to extend post-DTV-transition viewability standards to satellite comparable to those that it imposed on cable last fall, although comparable did not mean the same, the agency conceded in the order, pointing to the phase-in of the agreement -- cable's viewability requirement,which cable likes to call a dual-carriage requirement, kicks in Feb. 17, 2009.

"We continue to strive for regulatory parity in our policymaking," Martin said. "In this case, as it was last fall in the cable context, the American consumer is, and continues to be, our highest priority. Without the proper policies in place, some viewers may be left in the dark or be unable to realize the full opportunities offered by digital technology."

The commission's senior Democrat, Michael Copps, backed the order but wondered if the phase-in was necessary in part due to the FCC's inaction on the issue earlier.

"In January 2003, EchoStar [Communications] briefed the FCC in detail about the potential technical impact of a local-HD-carriage requirement; DirecTV made a similar presentation to the FCC in October 2004," he said. "Had we taken proactive steps then, we might find ourselves in a very different factual circumstance than we find ourselves today."

Copps also put in a plug for small cable operators, which have asked for a blanket waiver of cable's dual-carriage/viewability order, pointing to their own capacity constraints. "Now that we have addressed the impact of capacity constraints on DBS [direct-broadcast satellite] carriage obligations," he added, "I hope we turn quickly to the carriage issues raised by small cable operators. And my hope is that we approach those issues with the same sense of realism that we exhibit here."

Martin seemed amenable to the phase-in plan, which was proposed by Dish and DirecTV.

Per that schedule, satellite broadcasters must carry TV stations' HD signals in 15% of the markets in which they carry any HD signals by Feb. 17, 2010; 30% of those by Feb. 17, 2011; 60% by Feb. 17, 2012; and 100% by Feb. 17, 2013.

"DirecTV applauds the FCC for adopting a reasonable schedule for implementation of an HD ‘carry-one, carry-all’ requirement," the company said in a statement. "The FCC strikes an appropriate balance to reach its public-policy goals, while recognizing satellite's unique infrastructure and capacity challenges. The order, moreover, preserves existing service and helps to ensure a smooth digital transition to more than 30 million satellite TV households in 2009."

Dish was equally appreciative: "Dish Network applauds the FCC for recognizing the capacity challenges facing the satellite industry," the company said. "The FCC's order underscores that carry-one, carry-all obligations impose a significant burden on DBS providers. Because of differences in technology between cable and satellite, the added burden of an HD obligation disproportionately impacts the DBS industry. By adopting a 2013 deadline, the FCC has ensured that a new regulatory obligation does not harm DBS efforts to provide a smooth digital transition to more than 30 million satellite-TV households in 2009."

In the order, the commission said that even though it did not require satellite-TV operators to increase the number of markets in which they deliver local-TV-station signals, it nudged them in that direction, saying that supplying local stations in all 210 markets would "serve the public interest" by promoting the goals of localism, competition and diversity.

Dish had a response: "With respect to launching all local markets, Dish Network already provides local service in 174 out of 210 markets," the company said. "Most of the remaining local markets are missing one or more of the Big Four broadcast affiliates (ABC, NBC, CBS, or Fox), and broadcasters are opposed to granting satellite providers the right to bring in the missing stations, thus making service to additional local markets uneconomical. We look forward to working with the NAB [National Association of Broadcasters] and Congress to address this issue so that more Americans in rural areas can enjoy their local stations.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.