I wrote last month about the “must carry” debate going on between the FCC and the cable industry. Now there’s more to add to the story. The NCTA has proposed that cable companies multicast local digital channels in digital and analog for three years beyond the DTV transition deadline of February 17th, 2009. Cable companies would prefer to drop analog broadcasts of this local content as soon as possible to reclaim more bandwidth, but they’re clearly willing to negotiate. Will the FCC back down from its proposal for continual multicasting until cable systems are 100% digital, which will take much longer than three years?
Here’s a look at what’s at stake. A number of public television stations have gone digital since 1998 (336 as of a year ago) and have started broadcasting on multiple digital channels instead of a single analog channel each. More channels means more content, much of it local. Looking at my own public television station, for example, I can see that WHYY will be broadcasting films produced by students from Temple University on one of its digital channels this evening.
Public television content is meant to be free to the public, so the FCC maintains that cable should broadcast it in analog as long as it has analog customers. After February 2009, consumers without any type of paid TV will have to be digital viewers – with either new digital televisions or converter boxes – so they will see any local digital content. But some cable customers will still be analog, and therefore will be paying for television, but, without cable multicasting, will not be able to access local digital content.
This is a gnarly dilemma. Public TV stations want to make their new content available. Cable operators don’t want to be saddled with the bandwidth burden of broadcasting additional channels in analog. And consumers for the most part don’t know about the issue at all and couldn’t care less.
Here’s a way to sum it up simply with a familiar theme. When there’s more bandwidth available, we make more content. And the more content we make, the more bandwidth we want.