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NCTA, ACA Call for Relief

Independent cable operators are facing one of their most trying times, in terms of federal regulation, their lobbying group warned them last week.

But those small operators got some support last week when the National Cable & Telecommunications Association — the industry’s major trade group, which counts both large and small operators among its members — came out on their side on the issue of an exemption on so-called dual-carriage. That’s the Federal Communications Commission mandate that cable systems next year have to distribute both the analog and digital signals of must-carry TV stations. The American Cable Association, which represents independent cable multiple-system operators, is lobbying for a blanket exemption for operators with limited channel capacity (552 MHz or less) or with 5,000 or less subscribers. And last week, the NCTA wrote the FCC in support of that exact blanket waiver for smaller operators.

“Obviously, NCTA does have some smaller members, not nearly has many as we have, but they have some smaller members that have that concern,” ACA president Matt Polka said.

“Frankly, I appreciate the help on it,” he added. “It’s something that is a problem for the industry in general. To ensure that there is broadband in rural areas and other smaller markets, this relief is legitimate and necessary.”

Small systems said they don’t have the bandwidth to offer both the signals of their local broadcasters who opt for must-carry, demanding by law that their TV stations be carried on cable.

The NCTA sent its letter to the FCC last Tuesday, the same day Polka presented a sober update on small-operators’ regulatory battles in Washington at the National Cable Television Cooperative’s Winter Educational Conference here.

“There are so many issues that are affecting independent cable, it is perhaps — right now — the most critical time in our industry’s history, with so many serious issues and concerns compressed in a 12-month period, between February of this year and February 2009,” Polka said during a session titled “ACA and the ’08 Firestorm.”

At the panel, Polka and his staff updated small operators on his group’s efforts not only on dual carriage, but also on its attempt to get the FCC to address the issue of retransmission consent and the wholesale pricing and bundling practices of major programmers.

“It may not actually be a firestorm, it just feels that way,” Polka said. “Regulations, particularly from the FCC, disproportionately impact your systems and affect your ability to provide advanced services to your customers.”

The ACA had filed comments asking the FCC to take measures to force programmers to offer their networks on a standalone basis — so-called wholesale a la carte — and not just bundled together, so cable systems are forced to take lightly viewed channels in order to get marquee networks.