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Cable Technology Feature Article

June 14, 2012

Signal Carry Rule Quietly Lapses, Provides Relief for Cable Companies

By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer

On Wednesday morning at 12:01 AM, ET, the cable industry changed. Most will likely not notice the difference, for one fairly large subsector of the cable industry, the world as they know it has altered thanks to the FCC (News - Alert) allowing a rule known as the signal-carry rule to expire.

Previously, the signal-carry rule had allowed just over 12 million cable subscribers in the United States that had analog television sets to receive signals from broadcast stations without the need for digital converter boxes. The NCTA--National Cable & Telecommunications Association--led by Comcast (News - Alert), wanted an end to the rule, which had been in play since 2007 when the change from analog signals to digital signals first began, and was made to reflect the fairly large numbers of households dependent on analog signals, and the relative difficulty then of replacing said equipment.

Now, with prices on HDTV systems, be they plasma, LED or LCD, dropping to such a level that only 20 percent of the United States is still dependent on analog—that number is actually down from 45 percent in 2007, as reported by a June 8 filing from the NCTA (News - Alert) with the FCC—it was largely safe to let the rule go and give the cable providers the opportunity to drop the analog signals from their lineup. This also hopefully clears the way for more spectrum in general, an area that mobile device providers have been eager to get into to allow for the expansion of their services.

The move did not come without some controversy, however, as cable operators agreed to provide low-cost converter boxes allowing those with the analog sets to continue using them. The Consumers Union, meanwhile, wanted those boxes provided at no charge, and the National Association of Broadcasters wanted the signal-carry rule extended for another three years so as to ensure that viewers wouldn't lose access to their programming.

Reports suggest that the decision to allow the rule to expire quietly, according to Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, was “not an easy one”, and that she had specifically inserted language into the provision that allows the rule to expire that, should the lack of a signal-carry rule not go well for consumers, analog will be back, so the onus is on the cable providers now to ensure that this transition goes as smoothly as possible.

Considering the ground gained in getting digital televisions in homes, and considering the price drops on systems since 2007, it's a safe bet that this transition will indeed go as smoothly as Clyburn is after. Freeing up spectrum is a good idea as well, especially considering the growing numbers of mobile devices in the field that will need bandwidth to run many of their most crucial applications.

While for the 12 million homes still dealing with analog, this may prove a problem, the necessity of the digital television shift, as well as the sheer length of time the shared-carry rule ran, should minimize the problems that result from the expiry of the rule.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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