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Florida DTV Station Wants Analog Carriage

Washington-A Florida TV station that is planning to begin service solely as a digital broadcaster is asking the Federal Communications Commission for mandatory carriage in analog by local cable-TV systems.

The station-WHDT in Stuart-said it is presenting a nearly unique case separate from the controversy at the FCC regarding cable carriage of both analog and digital signals distributed by broadcasters.

"We are not trying to get involved in the ongoing battle between the broadcast industry as a whole and the cable industry as a whole about must-carry for the analog-digital combos," said Paul Feldman, a Washington, D.C.-area attorney for WHDT.

In a few months, WHDT is planning to beam its signal over the air in digital, but it wants to install technology at the cable headend to down-convert the signal to analog so that all cable subscribers, and not just subscribers with digital boxes, can see its programming.

"I am told that there maybe one other station in the country like this. This is a very unique and narrow situation," Feldman said.

WHDT-granted a construction permit from the FCC in April to licensee Guenter Marksteiner-filed a petition for declaratory ruling at the agency June 21. It sought a ruling that its proposal is entitled to mandatory cable carriage.

WHDT said cable operators would not have to carry multiple programming or data services to the extent that there are any.

WHDT plans mostly to air local news, movies, syndicated programming and English programs from German network Deutsche Welle, which WHDT described as the world's largest international news network after Time Warner Inc.'s Cable News Network.

Officially, the National Cable Television Association said it needed time to study WHDT's plans. But one cable-industry source said the proposal was troubling.

By demanding analog carriage, WHDT would be able to jump to the head of the line at the expense of cable networks that have been seeking analog slots but have been told that none exist.

"I am concerned when I think of all of the cable programmers who would love analog-tier access to a cable plant," the cable-industry source said.

The WHDT petition came as the FCC is beginning to make some incremental moves on the digital must-carry front.

The agency has shown little interest in requiring cable carriage of both analog and digital signals during the transition ending in 2006. But the FCC is starting to develop policies about digital-only must-carry, stemming from its need to free up spectrum in the 700-megahertz band for an auction Sept. 6 that could rank in the billions of dollars.

About 100 TV stations currently provide analog service in channels 60 through 69 in the 700-MHz band. The FCC wants to clear them out early to create a pristine band to whet the appetite of would-be auction bidders. Those bidders want the spectrum to offer next-generation wireless services-an area in which the United States trails Europe and Japan.

In an order adopted last week but still awaiting release, the FCC said start-up digital-only TV stations would get must-carry, and stations that vacated their 60-to-69 analog assignments before 2006 would get cable carriage for their digital signal.

This plan could cause regulatory headaches for cable operators and rate shock for consumers.

Under federal law, broadcast channels must be included in the basic tier, or the first level of service cable subscribers must buy either before or at the same time they buy traditional cable networks and premium channels.

The FCC's scenario of digital-only must-carry would mean that analog-only cable subscribers would have to obtain digital boxes to see the digital-TV channels the FCC has required cable operators to carry.

About 10 million of the country's 67 million cable subscribers buy digital services from cable operators.

This FCC's proposal would likely apply in the case of WHDT if the commission decided that the TV station had the right to be carried only in digital.

"Does that somehow trigger an obligation on every consumer to have a digital box simply to receive this one broadcaster's service?" the cable-industry source said. "Suddenly, the digital tier becomes a must-buy because he's a broadcaster."

Lastly, the FCC also said that if a 60-to-69 broadcaster ceased analog broadcasting and launched in digital, the agency would not interfere with the station if it had voluntarily negotiated with cable operators to carry its digital signal in analog.

The FCC is expected to limit the amount of time during which the digital-TV station would be allowed to have analog cable carriage.

The cable-industry source said the proposal to allow analog carriage of digital-TV signals was less troubling than the pure digital-must-carry requirement because there would be no impact on operators' channel capacities and no regulatory impact that would cause subscribers to obtain digital boxes.

"We do not want to frustrate the commission's aspirations to get back the spectrum in 60-to-69," the cable-industry source said. "I think we are willing to do our bit, but we need to see the details."

Clearing analog stations isn't the FCC's only problem in the 700-MHz band: About 44 incumbent analog-TV stations have been granted digital-channel allocations there.

Under FCC rules, those digital-TV stations are supposed to leave 60-to-69 at the end of the transition for a channel assignment within the core digital-TV spectrum between channels 2 and 51, an FCC source said.

But that still leaves the 60-to-69 spectrum encumbered for several years, and could impact the dollar return in the auction because bidders would not know when they could use the spectrum without interference.

"We certainly hope they have resolved the clearance issues because if they haven't, there is still a lot of work to do before a successful auction can be held," said Bill McCloskey, a spokesman for BellSouth Corp., a company interested in bidding in the 700-MHz auction.

Paxson Communications Corp. chairman Lowell W. Paxson sent a letter to FCC chairman William Kennard May 25 stating that plenty of room existed between channels 2 and 51 now to accommodate digital-TV stations assigned to channels in the 700-MHz band.

"Unless the FCC is able to clear some of these DTV allocations, the 700-MHz spectrum to be auctioned in September may have serious diminished value to the auction participants," Paxson said.