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Small Cable Sees D.C. Gains

4/26/2010 12:01 AM Eastern

Washington — The fortunes of small and
midsized independent cable operators are
looking up in D.C., particularly at the Federal
Communications Commission.

That was among the key takeaways from
last week’s American Cable Association policy
summit in National Harbor, Md., a silver
dollar’s throw across the Potomac from
Washington.

The commission factored the ACA’s concerns
— including permission to deploy integrated
high-definition set-tops — into
the national broadband plan, and chairman
Julius Genachowski earlier this month
opened an inquiry into retransmission consent
based on a petition that wedded ACA
members and some of the big players in
multichannel video, including Time Warner
Cable, Dish Network, DirecTV and Verizon
Communications.

‘BIT TORRENT’ UPSIDE
Even a federal court’s smackdown of the
FCC’s punishment of Comcast over BitTorrent
traffi c management could be a net plus
if it makes it easier for operators to do the
kind of management of peer-to-peer traffic some say is necessary to keep their networks
consumer-friendly.

Now that the court has raised doubt about
the FCC’s authority over network management,
it could become easier to manage
peer-to-peer file sharing.

What the decision does is take the “dark
cloud” off of network management, in the
words of one ACA board member. The board
member, a cable operator, said his company
now could now take “more robust actions.”

“I think what you could do is put some
traffic-shapers on there to maybe slow down
or prioritize data like peer-to-peer sharing,”
the operator executive said.

Another operator executive said he was
not so sure what the decision means — an
uncertainty shared all over the city as the
FCC considers how to clearly establish the
authority the appeals court said the agency
had not articulated successfully.

“It’s not that we want to necessarily benefit from this ruling to start discriminating,”
the operator executive said. “I think the answer
is: ‘We don’t know.’ The nature of the
decision is going to be under review for some
time.”

ACA is pushing the FCC to open a retrans
rulemaking. That would still be always down
the road, but one of FCC chairman Julius
Genachowski’s top advisers last week said
retrans was squarely on the radar.

During last week’s summit, Sherrese
Smith, Genachwoski’s media adviser, said
the commission would be looking at the issue
“very seriously.” While she was obviously
preaching to the choir, they didn’t have to
take her word for it.

Two weeks ago, FCC chairman Julius
Genachowski said the same thing to broadcasters
not eager to have the government
eye changes like standstill agreements that
would prevent them from pulling signals
when contracts are supposed to expire.

Smith said she would try to keep her bitterness
in check over having had to deal with
retrans over the Christmas and New Year’s
holidays and a family wedding. She was not
getting much sympathy from the crowd, who
had their own war stories to tell.

She said that retransmission negotiations
should be private transactions, but the
chairman is concerned about consumer issues
like loss of signals and cable rates. She
said retransmission disputes in which consumers
lose programming or don’t have time
to make alternate content choices “have become
a very big deal.”

SIGNAL LOSSES GO UNHEARD
ACA members last week said that they have
sometimes lost access to TV station signals
for months, even a year or more, at a time,
but given the size of their systems — a few
thousand customers — it just didn’t seem
to get the attention from Washington.

“We have had broadcasters pull major
market, major network signals in eight of
our DMAs over the last five years. It never
reached Congress or the FCC,” Tom Might,
an ACA board member and president of Cable
One, said during a press briefing.

In 2005, Might said, NBC and Fox affiliates
were off Cable One’s lineup for 12 months.
But ACA officials saw hope for change
from this FCC.

“Without too much hyperbole, this is the
first time in 17 years that we have had a twoway
conversation in Washington on retrans,”
Might said.

Small operators have had a voice in the
past, WOW CEO Colleen Abdoulah said. “But
it has been a whisper.”

“When the larger companies started having
problems and [broadcasters] started
removing the signal, now customers are involved,
now customers are paying attention,”
she said. “For us smaller guys, we don’t have
that leverage.”

ACA SUMMIT FACTS
Small and mid-sized cable operators flew into Washington,
D.C., last week to talk policy and get some face time with
legislators and top FCC staffers:

Location: National Harbor, Md., April 19-21.
Attendees: 285
Companies represented: 164 (includes operators, programmers and equipment vendors)
Capitol Hill meetings scheduled: 147

SOURCE: American Cable Association

September