FCC Says Goodbye to Waivers and Hello to a New Rule for Digital Cable Technology
FCC Says Goodbye to Waivers and Hello to a New Rule for Digital Cable Technology
FCC Says Goodbye to Waivers and Hello to a New Rule for Digital Cable Technology

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    For many years, consumers were able to save some money on
    their cable bills by simply subscribing to a basic tier of programming.  For
    additional programming, subscribers had to pay for a set-top box provided by the
    cable company.  This worked fine when
    cable companies transmitted the programming in an analog format.  But
    times, and technology, are changing.  Now even the basic tier, like the
    more expensive ones, is going digital, and that means consumers will have to
    pay for a box even if they didn’t have one before.  In response to these events, the Federal
    Communications Commission proposed a new rule.  Public Knowledge applauds the FCC for proposing
    the rule in response to digital cable technology and protecting subscribers
    from being hit too hard as a result of the digital transition. 

    In the early 1990s, the FCC prohibited cable companies from
    encrypting basic cable digital signals so subscribers with analog televisions
    could view basic cable programming without a set-top box.  Because cable companies stopped transmitting
    television programming through analog signals and now transmit programming
    through digital signals, this rule is outdated. 
    Most cable companies want to encrypt the basic cable packages to prevent
    theft and improve customer service.  In
    2009, as part of a move towards exclusively digital delivery, Cablevision
    requested a waiver to encrypt its basic tier digital signals. This would allow
    Cablevision to serve its subscribers remotely by simply activating an account
    from the home office instead of having to send out a technician.  The FCC granted Cablevision’s waiver in
    January 2010. 

    Two concerns arose from the waiver, but the FCC is
    addressing each concern:

    First, PK was originally concerned that the FCC would not
    propose a new rule to address the technological update.  In the past, a party (like Cablevision) could
    request a waiver from a rule that was no longer relevant because of
    technological updates.  The FCC granted
    the waiver if the party had a reasonable purpose for the waiver.  The problem was that if one party needed a
    waiver, it was inevitable that other parties also needed waivers.  The FCC granted waiver after waiver instead
    of nipping the problem in the bud with a new rule that addressed the new

    When Cablevision requested a waiver, it did so because the
    old rule prohibiting encryption was outdated. 
    PK commented that the FCC should propose a new rule because many other cable companies would
    soon find themselves in the same position as Cablevision.  The FCC did just that, and cable companies
    and other commenters can now offer input to make a useful, generally applicable
    rule to encrypt digital signals.  This
    rule-based approach to change is much more reasonable than trying to cope with
    change through individual waivers. 

    Second, PK is concerned about the small percentage of
    subscribers that still have analog televisions. 
    Previously, subscribers that didn’t want a digital converter box didn’t
    pay for one, but now, subscribers will have to pay for a converter box.  These subscribers should still be able to
    watch the television shows they receive as part of their basic cable package
    even if they cannot afford digital converter boxes.  PK and Media Access Project jointly
    filed comments supporting the FCC’s proposed rulemaking and suggested two minor adjustments to the rule to protect subscribers with
    analog televisions.  We asked the FCC to broaden
    the criteria used to determine who will qualify for assistance to obtain
    converter boxes.  Broadening the
    criteria will help cable companies predict which subscribers will need
    assistance.  We also want to ensure that
    subscribers do not experience “bill shock” by clarifying in the rule that
    converter boxes are free for a specified period of time and that cable companies
    notify the subscriber each month for three months before the subscriber will be
    charged for the box.

    With these minor adjustments, Public Knowledge fully
    supports a rulemaking that will not only allow cable companies to develop and
    promote new services while protecting low-income subscribers, but also will
    create a new rule that addresses the current digital technology.