When I brought home my first HD television set last year, I discovered the wonder of multicasting, a technique where digital over-the-air broadcasts can contain multiple channels. One of our PBS stations here in Chicago, for instance, broadcasts three separate digital channels: one that shows only HD content, an SD channel that shows the current PBS lineup, and a third SD channel dubbed “Create” that shows only art, cooking, and home improvement shows. Other local networks use multicasting to transmit a 24-hour weather channel alongside their main offering. It’s a cool, though not always compelling, technology, but it has now become a political battle as well.
Cable television operators are currently required to carry local networks, but as those networks and the cable stations transition to digital, a question arises: should the cable companies be required to carry the multicast channels as well as the main signal? Kevin Martin at the FCC says “Yes,” and he’s trying to get a vote on the matter in the next few weeks. He’s got the blessing of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), who is also overseeing the network neutrality debates, but Martin has stirred up tremendous opposition from the industry. Kyle McSlarrow of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association argues that the “must-carry” requirement isn’t just another bad idea, it’s downright unconstitutional.
“The issue of multicast must-carry is not a close call. As a statutory matter, the plain language of the [1992 Cable Act] does not authorize such carriage. As a constitutional matter, even if the language of the act were ambiguous, construing it to require multicast carriage would run afoul of the First and Fifth Amendments,” McSlarrow said.
The reason for the cable companies’ opposition isn’t hard to find. Carrying more channels introduces more complexity and requires increased bandwidth, a commodity that is in short supply as the cable operators make the transition to digital (their networks currently have to make space for both analog and digital signals).
Unlike a traditional cable system, newer IPTV systems have no similar bandwidth constraints. IPTV transmits only the channels currently being watched, but it can provide access to as many channels as the central office is interested in hosting. For IPTV operators, then, adding multicast channels is not a big deal from a bandwidth perspective (though it may cost more money in maintenance and administration), but they recognized that it can cause problems for cable. It’s not surprising, then, to learn that AT&T has recently come out in favor of the “must-carry” rules. If you have the bandwidth but your competitor does not, then the adoption of such rules gives AT&T a competitive advantage.
Todd Chanko, an analyst at Jupiter Research, claims that this move could backfire on the company, which is steadfastly opposing network neutrality legislation. If AT&T supports federal “must-carry” requirements for its television business, can it really turn around and argue that the government has no right to impose nondiscrimination requirements on its Internet business? As Chanko puts it, “If the company, whose stock is up 13.2% year-to-date, supports federally mandated use of one communication platform, can it realistically oppose another?”
If the new multicast rule passes FCC muster next week, broadcasters across the country will be thrilled, but probably won’t see their multicast stations appearing on cable networks anytime soon. The cable industry has already announced plans to fight the issue in court if necessary.