ACA set forth its views in reply comments filed Jan. 25 in response to a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in which the FCC sought to update its proof-of-performance rules and basic signal leakage performance criteria to reflect the cable industry's ongoing transition from analog to digital transmission systems.
ACA cited several reasons for its position that already has substantial support in the record, including that there has been no pattern of technical problems with digital signals; that improvements in cable technology make adopting proof-of-performance rules for digital signals unnecessary; and that today's competitive market ensures that cable providers have incentives to deliver superior video quality.
In lieu of burdensome, needless and ineffective proof-of-performance testing for digital signals, ACA recommended that the FCC permit cable system operators to demonstrate compliance with the industry-adopted technical standards through certifications. ACA said FCC rules should require that certifications be completed annually and require that the certifications be placed in a cable system's public inspection file.
"ACA supports allowing cable operators to show compliance with the digital technical standards by certifying that that the system is designed to provide good quality signals and that the system complies with relevant technical standards," Polka said. "The FCC permits cable operators to certify compliance in analogous situations, including Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation (CALM) Act compliance obligations that apply to upstream programmers and third-party local advertising insertion companies."
If the FCC decides not to adopt certifications for all cable operators as the appropriate policy, ACA recommended that the FCC permit smaller cable operators - defined as those with 400,000 subscribers or fewer on a companywide basis - to demonstrate compliance through certifications. Relief for a whole class of small cable operators would represent a carefully tailored response to the resource demands proposed testing requirements would impose, ACA said.
"These operators already face unique challenges providing competitive video, broadband, and telephony services. Additional signal quality testing requirements would compound the economic challenges already faced by smaller cable operators who often serve smaller markets and rural areas where the cost of system builds, upgrades, and maintenance in often sparsely populated and geographically dispersed areas can be recouped only through fees spread over a smaller subscriber base than that served by larger urban operators," Polka said. "Moreover, these operators have a very significant marketplace incentive to ensure their digital signals are of high quality because they compete against DirecTV and DISH Network, all-digital DBS providers, whose penetration is often highest in the areas served by these smaller operators."
ACA also stressed the need for the FCC to streamline its recordkeeping and public inspection file requirements by limiting cable operator retention of records showing compliance with the proof-of-performance rules for a maximum of two years.
In its comments, ACA noted that opposition to excessively stringent proof-of-performance rules and reporting mandates had substantial industry support, including from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Verizon, CenturyLink, and the Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies (OPASTCO)/National Organization of Telecommunications Advocates for Small Companies (NTCA).
ACA and other industry participants underscored that the FCC failed to identify in the NPRM any problem with the quality of cable television digital signals, unlike the situation after passage of the 1992 Cable Act where the FCC had to address a pattern of technical problems with analog cable service. Digital signal quality has not been an issue, even though the FCC has required cable operators of systems of 750 MHz or greater to adhere to the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) 40 digital technical standard since 2003 without mandatory testing. Furthermore, ACA pointed out that the NPRM contained not a single mention of a subscriber complaint related to digital signal quality.
"The record is clear that digital signals are more robust and reliable. This is the case because digital signal technology, with its error correction capabilities, provides a more consistent good quality signal - unlike analog cable systems that use signal amplifiers and run the risk of introducing noise and distortions into the programming received by consumers," Polka said.
ACA explained that the architecture of digital networks would raise the cost of complying with proof-of-performance mandates. Modern cable television distribution systems rely on technically independent "nodes," each typically serving at most a few hundred customers. Consequently, performing proof-of-performance testing on one node would provide little, if any, information about the signal quality on other system nodes. Because of the high number of nodes on each system, performing a test on each node would create a substantial economic burden on operators with little offsetting benefit to consumers.
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