As the late Gilda Radner used to say, "It's always something."

For smaller cable operators, next year's transition to all-digital signals comes on the heels of last year's separable security mandate for set-top boxes (STBs) by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Of course, cable operators of all sizes have had to deal with both issues, but the one-two punch of going all-digital and the dual must-carry requirement is especially onerous for the smaller cable operators.

On the competitive side, the satellite providers are diligently working to win over customers with their high-definition (HD) offerings, which are difficult for some of the smaller cable operators to match.

It was with the above thoughts in mind that 327 small- and mid-size cable operators attended the National Cable Television Cooperative's (NCTC) Winter Educational Conference in Phoenix last week. Dan Mulvenon, the NCTC's VP of corporate communications, said that the 327 cable attendees, out of a membership of 1,100 cable operators, was the largest draw ever for the winter conference. With vendor exhibitors and others in attendance, the total number for the day-and-a-half conference was 542 attendees.

"I think a lot of our members face a pretty broad challenge with the FCC's digital transition mandate and the dual carry of signals by February 2009," Mulvenon said. "We constructed the agenda to look at what is best and the most cost efficient, from a technology standpoint, for meeting the digital mandate. A lot of our members are moving aggressively toward the transition to digital, but we do have a core group of smaller companies that don't have the engineering or corporate depth to have the information in hand, so the purpose of the show was to have them look at the options and meet with the vendors and other members to find out how to move forward in this area.

"We recognize that for some of our members, this is a very costly transition to make, so we wanted to show them how they could do it, or if they couldn't do it, what their options were."

The conference panelists and speakers outlined the options for going to all-digital, as well as the time frame that the FCC has in place for the operators to meet its obligations. But aside from the vendors and experts, the conference also gave the smaller operators a chance to share their experiences.

Mulvenon said one of the things that was different about last week's conference was the hour-long networking events that followed the sessions. The networking events let attendees ask more questions of panelists and vendors, and it even let them set up separate tables for NCTC members so that they could talk amongst themselves.

"We even had tables set up for members with 100 or less subscribers," Mulvenon said. "It was members learning from other members, and the feedback was very positive, so we expect to keep doing that going forward."

The NCTC and the American Cable Association (ACA) will co-host their next conference July 27-30 in Orlando. Mulvenon said attendees are encouraged to bring their families - there will be a family function event at one of the nearby theme parks.