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The end of the big, ugly dish?

Tue, 05/31/2005 - 8:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

Before there was DBS, there was BUD. That stands for Big Ugly Dish, and it refers to the six-foot dish needed to receive C-band video. Starting in the early 1980s, this was the only way for rural viewers to receive a wide variety of TV programming. Now it looks like the FCC is about to kill, or at least seriously maim, what’s left of that business, and at the same time impose new costs on any cable systems that continue to use analog satellite receivers. Buried deep in a highly technical notice of proposed rulemaking on satellite earth station standards is a proposal to prohibit the satellite transmission of analog video signals, in order (so they say) to reduce interference and make more efficient use of spectrum.

Jeffrey Krauss
C-band scrambling started in 1986, using an analog scrambling system from General Instrument Corp. called VideoCipher 2 (VC2). By late 1989, there were more than 600,000 VC2 subscribers. By 1994, as DirecTV was just starting out, the VC2 subscriber base was over 1.7 million. Recall that the same analog signals that were delivered to cable headends were being sold to the VC2 subscribers. As satellite programmers gradually implemented the DigiCipher digital satellite delivery system, Motorola introduced the 4DTV home satellite receiver, so that the C-band home subscribers could also receive digital satellite channels. By 1998, there were more than 2 million VC2 subscribers, but that number was starting to fall, and DirecTV and Echostar between them had about 5 million subs. Now there are perhaps 250,000 VC2 subscribers, and maybe 100,000 more that watch the unscrambled channels like CSPAN and CSPAN2. In other words, there are still plenty of analog satellite video receivers out there.

This new FCC proposal had its origin at least as early as a 1986 FCC notice of proposed rulemaking to implement the 1983 2-degree spacing decision. In the 1986 NPRM, the FCC said that “video interference…is by far the most severe inter-satellite interference problem.” It proposed technical and operational procedures to minimize interference.

This 1986 proposal was adopted in a 1993 Second Report and Order. (Evidently the interference wasn’t all that bad.) In this decision, the FCC reaffirmed that “the most severe inter-satellite interference problem documented in both uplink and downlink transmissions is interference from analog video transmissions…”.

In this new Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that was released in March 2005, the FCC is proposing some highly technical changes to the earth station rules. These include replacing the current earth station regulatory regime, which is based on two rules: (1) an on-axis power limit plus (2) an off-axis emission gain mask, with a single envelope that specifies off-axis EIRP per kHz density limits at various angular ranges. The document contains four tables, listing the limits the FCC proposes to use for C-band analog, C-band digital, Ku-band analog and Ku-band digital.

In the Notice, the FCC asks whether the C-band analog limits are sufficient to protect other licensed transmissions from analog video interference, but they evidently don’t think so. They’ve placed the burden on parties supporting the proposed limits to submit detailed studies showing that the limits will protect other users.

But clearly, they’ve already made up their mind. Buried in paragraph 88, the FCC says it intends to prohibit analog satellite video transmissions.

Parties that disagree have the burden to disclose their current uses and future plans for analog video, and their costs or other hardships if they are forced to convert to digital. The FCC already believes that analog video should go away. If you disagree, it’s up to you to convince them.

The FCC notes that analog satellite transmissions are declining. However, the March 2005 CED magazine Orbital Arc Chart suggests that there are still about 70 analog C-band video transponders in use.

This is more or less confirmed by the Motorola 4DTV Web site, which lists all the C-band programming that is available to home dish subscribers, and indicates whether the signal is Clear, VC2, Digital Clear or Digital Subscription. (See http://broadband.motorola.com/4DTV/xcel.htm.)

If you go to that site, you will see that CSPAN and CSPAN2 are listed as Clear. This means they are analog C-band transmissions that are not scrambled. And of course, the “stars” of CSPAN programming are our elected officials–Congressmen and Senators. So the FCC proposal will deprive these “stars” of some portion of their audience.

Maybe the FCC proposal will eliminate a significant interference threat, although I haven’t heard any complaints lately. Maybe it will allow the delivery of some new digital services that were precluded by the analog video transmissions, but I doubt it. It seems to me that the FCC has made a politically stupid proposal, although they have tried their best to conceal it.

C-band subscribers were once a politically powerful force. Of course, that was then, and this is now.

Oh, and by the way, do any of your cable systems still have any analog satellite receivers in use? I think they might.

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