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Must-carry loose ends

Sat, 04/30/2005 - 8:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

Electronic program guides are also at issue here. The PSIP standard (ATSC Standard A/65) specifies a way for each broadcaster to carry program guide information about the future programs to be carried on their channel. Information about future programs is not “program related” because it is not related to the current program. The cable industry, in a February 2000 agreement between the NCTA and the Consumer Electronics Association, had previously agreed to carry a broadcaster’s program guide information for a 12-hour period into the future. But cable operators are free to strip out guide data about programs further off in the future. And meanwhile, program guide service vendors like Gemstar-TVGuide International want to make deals with broadcasters to carry enhanced program guides, covering all channels, and they want cable operators to be forced to carry those proprietary services under the guise of being program-related.

Jeffrey Krauss
The law requires cable operators to carry a broadcaster’s programs without “material degradation.” In the analog world, this has usually been interpreted to mean that the broadcaster’s signal, when delivered to a cable subscriber’s home, should not be much noisier than when it was received by the cable operator. But there is no specific FCC rule interpreting precisely what it means. (In contrast, a broadcaster must deliver a good quality signal to the cable operator, and an FCC rule specifies a signal strength of at least -45 dBm for UHF signals and -49 dBm for VHF. And there are analog cable technical standards that apply to all analog channels, in Section 76.605 of the FCC Rules.)

For digital programs, there are some sticky questions here. If a broadcaster devotes a constant bit rate of 19 Mbps to an HD program, but the actual bit rate varies between 12 Mbps and 19 Mbps depending on picture content, can a cable operator strip out the null packets and carry just the variable bit rate picture signal? Or suppose video coding techniques have evolved so that home viewers cannot distinguish between a 19 Mbps picture and a 15 Mbps picture; can a cable operator transcode to a 15 Mbps signal and use the remaining capacity for something else? If a cable operator does a format conversion of an HD program from 1080i to 720p, does that degrade the picture quality?

There is currently no objective way to measure the picture quality of a digital television program. Broadcasters say that this means the only way to prevent material degradation is to pass through all the transmitted bits. The cable industry says that HD programs will be carried in one of the two standard HD formats, and SD programs in one of the many SD formats, and that satisfies the law.

Up until now, the FCC has made digital must-carry decisions that the cable industry has applauded (and the broadcasters have hated). But those decisions did not require a great understanding of the technology. This year we anticipate the appointment of one new Commissioner, for sure (to replace Powell), and possibly another one (to replace Abernathy), and if history is any guide, they will both be lawyers. The remaining must-carry issues are as closely tied to the technology as the law. Does anyone foresee a quick decision on these issues? Not me.

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