Thomas G. Robinson
, Executive Vice President, CBG Communications Inc.
We've all heard the phrase "rules are made to be broken." I think, though, that the person who uttered that phrase must have had some sort of oppositional disorder, because most people do seek to follow the rules, or at least their understanding of the rules.

The more appropriate axiom may be that "rules are made to be interpreted," based on what are typically deemed the best practices for following that rule. Recently, the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) announced that it was pursuing development of a new "standard guidance document" that would help promote industry compliance with pertinent sections of the National Electric Code (NEC). Sections 820 and 830 of the NEC specifically speak to cable television or broadband network compliance with grounding, drop installations and other requirements at and within the premises of subscribers. The SCTE has indicated that this document will initially be crafted by Working Group Seven as part of the work of the Interface Practices Subcommittee (IPS). The first meeting of the new Working Group will be held in conjunction with the SCTE's Conference on Emerging Technologies, which is being held this month in Dallas.

Compliance with the NEC, as well as the NESC (National Electrical Safety Code) related to outside plant, is near and dear to the heart of many local jurisdictions. In fact, the vast majority of local franchises incorporate compliance with the NEC and NESC.

Even at this early juncture, some local authorities are already concerned that the SCTE is mounting a challenge designed to negatively impact local government regulatory authority. Those of us who have been involved in inspections by local authorities of cable installations know that there has been many a tussle between city engineers and their technical counterparts on the industry side over interpretations of the NEC rules.

Accordingly, the thought is that the cable industry may now be seeking to interpret the rules in its favor, in order to wipe out thousands of existing violations as moot and weaken a local authority's ability to obtain compliance and enforce franchise requirements.

These concerns are evident even though the Society indicates in its announcements that there is no intent to develop competing requirements with those found in the NEC. However, the Society does intend to ultimately embody its recommendations as a formal SCTE standard, and possibly as an ANSI standard. Depending on how cable franchises and city codes are currently written (or interpreted), embodiment as an SCTE standard or an ANSI standard could ultimately pose a conflict in existing franchise and code provisions, or worse, could result in a lessening of a franchise authority's ability to enforce compliance with customary standards.

Concerned local authorities also point out that even though the SCTE has indicated a willingness to include (and has already invited) local authorities to participate in the Working Group, it may be doing so only to foster perception of the SCTE standard as the consensus of both local governments and the industry, even if the local authorities involved in the Working Group may have strongly dissented on certain recommended provisions during the Group's discourse, debate and discussion.

Another way, though, to look at any perceived challenge is as an opportunity–in this case, an opportunity to resolve many conflicts that have arisen over interpretations of the NEC, and develop a set of mutually agreeable standards going forward that will reduce conflict between local government regulatory authorities and industry technical personnel. Ultimately, this will benefit the cable industry's subscribers and the local government's citizens, which we sometimes forget are one and the same.

As a veteran of the FCC cable television technical standards development process, wherein the Commission sought advice and input from a committee equally represented by local government franchise authorities and cable operators, it is possible to arrive at an effective and workable set of standards, if all parties keep their eye on the prize, even though such parties may have a variety of purposes in mind at the outset. In other words, multi-purpose is OK; cross-purpose is not. Truth be told, the FCC technical standards are by no means perfect, and some are still subject to differing interpretations.

However, most on both the local government and industry sides will agree that the joint development process ended up with a set of standards that were highly useful and that are, more often than not, subject to the same understanding and interpretation by both local authorities and cable operators. Most important, though, is that there are a number of us who thought going in that we might end up with a "cow by committee," and that did not happen. I find my underlying "give peace a chance" philosophy is coming to the forefront on this issue.

I'm as wary as other interested parties that we not give in to the "Chamberlain effect" and give more ground than is reasonable. However, every challenge is truly an opportunity, and Working Group Seven presents an early opportunity in 2004 to find common ground.

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