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NAB Request Could Hammer Small Ops

A new emergency-alerting proposal on the Federal
Communications Commission's table, compliments of the National Association of
Broadcasters, could bring more financial headaches to small operators that are already
struggling to comply with existing rules.

In response to an NAB request, the FCC wants to know
whether it should adopt a rule that prohibits cable systems from overriding
broadcasters' Emergency Alert System messages.

Comments on the proposed ruling were due last week. If
adopted, the rules could force cable operators to install emergency-alerting equipment on
a channel-by-channel basis, instead of using one piece of equipment for an entire channel
lineup, which is significantly less expensive.

The EAS was enacted in 1994 to include all cable operators,
and it was modified last year with a more amenable phase-in period for cable operators to
install and rewire their systems.

The EAS requires all cable systems to provide an audio and
EAS video message on at least one channel, and video interruption and audio-alert messages
on all programming channels, by Dec. 31. For systems with fewer than 10,000 subscribers,
the deadline is Oct. 1, 2002.

The NAB's request expressed its concern that when the
EAS is activated, a cable-television-system EAS message could interrupt more detailed
emergency information provided by a local broadcaster. In the 1997 modified version of the
EAS ruling, however, both broadcasters and cable operators agreed that a cable operator
may elect not to interrupt broadcast programming upon written agreement with the

The addendum proposed by the NAB could have serious
financial repercussions for some small to midsized operators that can't amortize the
additional costs of equipment and, in some cases, of rewiring over their subscriber base.

"Basically, it's a real selfish attempt by
broadcasters. It's not good for smaller operators, and it could cost them up to
$8,000 per headend, and maybe put some of them out of business," said Matt Polka,
president of the Small Cable Business Association.

The original 1994 document called for broadcasters and
cable operators to work together in determining who would handle emergency pre-emptions,
and to what extent.

Said Polka: "We're talking about an agreement
that we had that said that both [broadcasters and cable operators] can handle the
pre-emptions, and that they'd be dictated by the market. Now, broadcasters are saying
that they don't like it, and they want it changed."

Not surprisingly, the SCBA will tell the FCC not to give
in. "We'll fight," Polka said, "to keep the current ruling in

He added that he thinks that the FCC "really
doesn't want to deal with this. It wants to move forward."

Frank Lucia, director of emergency communications for the
FCC's Compliance and Information Bureau, conceded that if adopted, the new ruling
could be harsh on smaller operators.

"The broadcasters were able to start their EAS
immediately, but cable operators have had to make certain adjustments, and some override
rules would have bankrupted smaller systems," he said.

The SBCA has defined small cable operators as companies
generating less than $11 million in revenues annually. Currently, there are about 1,450
cable and wireless systems considered "small."

The proposal by the NAB, Lucia added, could cause delays in
installing additional EAS equipment at cable systems. "This is holding things
up," he said. "Operators don't want to have to pick out a channel here and
there, but broadcasters feel that they provide enough emergency signals, and that cable
shouldn't have selective-override authority."

Some operators, like Jones Intercable Inc., have already
purchased EAS equipment and rewired portions of their systems to accommodate EAS -- a
good-citizen effort that could backfire if the proposed ruling is adopted.

"All of our EAS equipment has been purchased, and it
will roll out fully in June," said Saconna Blair, director of network management for
Jones. "We'd have to purchase additional equipment and do some rewiring to make
it work [the NAB's way]."

The price tag for that additional hardware, Blair said:
roughly $2,000 per headend.

Another downside, Blair noted, is the inconsistent look,
and potential danger, of channels having different emergency messages. "There'll
be an impact when we have a broadcaster that is not on the national emergency system, and
when we want to do a local emergency message," he said. "Why should one channel
differ from another during an emergency?"

Despite the current angst over the NAB's proposal,
some smaller operators, such as Great Plains Communication in Blair, Neb., are pushing
ahead with their EAS plans and integrating the emergency system into their
community-affairs efforts.

"We can provide meaningful information and go beyond
the written document," said Tim Garrigan, co-owner of Great Plains. "It partners
us with our community, and it gives our customers information in life-threatening
situations. We feel that it's critical for us to view this as community work."