DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor


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Senate Takes Up TV Franchising & More

May 20, 2006

The Senate Commerce Committee held hearings this past week on the Communications, Consumer's Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006.

Well, that's a mouthful! The bill (S. 2686) has ten titles covering topics from fighting terrorism to broadband services. 135 pages.

Title III covers TV franchising, Title IV does Video Content, and Title VIII is called Digital Television.

The bill is similar to the House bill in that it sets up a national TV franchise program. Many Senators on the Committee think that local or state jurisdiction is better.

Our beloved Senator Ted Stevens vowed that it would become law by this summer. Other Senators begged to differ.

Part 2 of the hearings has been scheduled for May 25; the committee will also preview an alternative bill on June 13. We should have a better idea where all this falls out by the beginning of July (which year is still in question).

Some examples of what's in S. 2686:

A provision that would prohibit the FCC from changing the effective date of its digital tuner mandate for TV sets 13" and larger from March 1, 2007. (It isn't clear whether they think the FCC would advance or delay that date. The lobbyists have no doubt been busy.)

A provision that would allow cable companies to downconvert high-definition TV broadcasts to standard definition until February 17, 2014.

A provision that would require cable companies to include broadcast TV stations' digital/HD signals in their "basic" tier of service. (That's the cheapest tier--$10-$15 or so.) What usually happens now is that the basic tier will give you only stations' low-def analog channels.

Kyle McSlarrow (cable industry chief lobbyist, and hearing witness) took issue with that requirement. The cable industry likes to use the broadcast high-def channels as an inducement to sell their more pricey packages ($80 or so per month if you want HD).

McSlarrow also slammed the FCC's often delayed requirement that will ban integrated cable set-top boxes after July 2007.

Integrated boxes include the security function as well as the non-security functions (eg. interactive features, channel guides, etc.). The security function can be embodied in CableCards and also as software downloads in to-become-available third-party cable boxes purchased at your local electronics store. In other words, the cable industry still wants to maintain their lock on set-top boxes, a lucrative source of monthly rental income.

McSlarrow claimed that "The set-top box ban is anti-competitive and will slow the digital transfer." I have yet to decipher a speck of logic in that statement. But hey, he gets paid a lot of money to protect his industry's cash cows. . .