Independent cable system operators are trying to head off the devastation certain to result should the Federal Communications Commission formally adopt the must-carry rules the commission seems to be leaning toward. 

The American Cable Association (ACA) said it met with the FCC on August 30, trying to convince the government body that its so-called Triple-Carriage Order, a proposal the FCC first floated in May, is “both fiscally and technologically infeasible for all small cable operators.”

The proposed rule would have cable operators transmit must-carry channels in digital high definition, digital standard definition, and analog.

The measure would ensure that every extant TV would be able to display at least one signal when hooked up to cable. But it would also compel cable operators to devote extra bandwidth to simultaneously broadcasting the same channel thrice. Few small operators have extra bandwidth.

The ACA said the order would force operators of small systems to either drop other channels to buy room – reducing their competitiveness - or shut down their systems altogether. Should an operator be forced to shut down, consumers would still have the option to subscribe to DBS video, but in many rural areas, that would eliminate the only broadband provider.

The ACA cited reports that the triple-carriage order is now being circulated among FCC Commissioners in advance of the next Open Commission Meeting on September 11 where a vote on the matter could occur.

In the ACA's Ex Parte FCC filing following the August 30 meetings, the association said the equipment and labor costs of complying with a triple-carriage obligation is likely to exceed $100,000 for most cable systems.

“For a system that serves only 5,000 subscribers, these costs are significant. For smaller systems, the cost per subscriber to comply with a triple-carriage obligation would exceed the asset value of the entire cable system,” the ACA said.

Matt Polka, president and CEO of the ACA, suggested that rather than mandating triple carriage, the federal government should allow the marketplace to dictate which formats independent cable operators provide to their subscribers and the timetable for small operators to transition into all-digital services, among those that can do so.
“It’s unfathomable that the Federal Communications Commission would require approximately 7,500 cable systems to purchase the same expensive equipment to reformat the signals of about 850 broadcasters from high definition to standard definition and analog,” said Patrick Knorr, chairman of the ACA and general manager of Sunflower Broadband.

“Tens of millions of dollars could be saved if these 850 broadcasters were required to deliver their high definition signal in standard definition to the cable systems whether over the air, by IP, or by fiber. For some operators, the cost savings could allow them to continue providing service in their market."