Providing Local Content to Rural America

This fall we can look forward to a big battle in Congress over the rules regulating cable TV. The rules that govern the rights of satellite TV providers to carry local network affiliates (ABC, CBS, NBC, and FOX) will be expiring. If Congress takes no action it’s possible that local networks could disappear from satellite cable lineups.

In 2014 Congress passed the STELAR Act (Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization). This legislation allowed satellite providers to deliver distant network stations into rural markets rather than having to negotiate with individual stations in every market. This has acted to hold down satellite TV costs since it makes local stations agreeable to negotiate fees with the satellite providers at reasonable fees.

This is a big contrast to the way that landline cable networks have to pay for local programming. In the 1992 Cable Act, Congress enacted the idea of retransmission consent. These rules were intended to protect local network affiliates since many cable companies at the time were electing to not add local stations channels to their line-ups. The 1992 Act made it mandatory for cable companies to carry local networks, and for the most part, they did so for free.

However, over the last decade, as local stations were losing advertising revenues, they have stepped up charges to cable companies to carry their signal. The fees for access to local network affiliates in most markets has skyrocketed and contributes $10 – $12 per month towards the cost of cable TV bills in most markets (in a few a lot more).

There is a lot of pressure on Congress to look at the whole retransmission issue while they are considering the STELAR renewal for satellite companies. Congress hasn’t made any significant regulatory changes for the cable industry since the 1992 Act and the industry has changed drastically in the last few years.

Just looking back to 2014 when the STELAR act was passed, online content providers like Netflix represented only 2% of the industry. Today there is a slew of online content providers and there are now more households buying online content than subscribing to traditional cable packages. With cord-cutting, the numbers are shifting drastically, with the latest figures trending towards traditional cable losing as much as 5% of total market share this year.

We are also seeing escalating battles over carriage of content. There were 213 blackouts in the industry as of the end of July, contrasted with 165 blackouts for last year. Last month a battle between AT&T and CBS caused those channels to go dark. There has been a running battle between Dish Networks and Univision this year. It’s becoming obvious that the cable companies are no longer willing to automatically accept huge rate increases from local network affiliates.

It’s a classic battle of huge companies. Cable companies are pushing to break the required nature of retransmission consent rules that require them to carry local stations – that rule gives cable companies almost no negotiating power. Meanwhile, the big networks like ABC and CBS have been benefitting from the retransmission revenues. While these fees are theoretically paid to local stations, the parent networks sweep most of this money into their own coffers. The network owners are pushing hard to keep the retransmission consent rules intact.

Most local stations now charge between $2 and $3 monthly to cable companies for every customer that receives their signal. It’s an interesting dynamic because a majority of people could instead get this content for free through the use of rabbit ears. Additionally, most of the national content from the big networks is available online – it’s not hard to find ways to watch the shows from CBS or NBC. The big monthly retransmission fees only add local programming like news and local sports to cable subscribers.

The cord-cutting phenomenon tells us that many households are willing to walk away from local programming if it saves them money. I was in a meeting last with ten people, and not one of them watches local news and local programming. The big question facing Congress is how relevant local content is to most households. There are many people who still love local news and local sports, but that universe keeps shrinking as households are deluged with content alternatives. Expect to hear lots of rhetoric this fall as both sides rachet up arguments for Congress.

 

Industry Shorts – August 2016

ATTThe following are a few topics I which found interesting but don’t require a full blog entry:

FCC to Allow Cable Black-outs. The FCC has officially decided that it is not going to intervene in the many disputes we see these days between programmers and cable operators. Only a few years ago this was a fairly rare occurrence, but you can’t read industry press without seeing some new dispute – many of which are now leading to content black-outs when the two sides can’t reach a resolution.

The FCC has always been allowed to intervene in disputes and routinely did so a decade ago. The American Cable Association which represents small and medium cable companies wants the FCC to be more active today to protect against abuses by the programmers, but the agency has decided to let the market work to resolve disputes. There have been over 600 blackouts since 2010 and the frequency seems to be accelerating.

Blogger Loses Life’s Work. Google recently hit the news when it disabled access to 14 years of blogs as well artwork, photograph, a novel and even the Gmail account that was being stored online by Dennis Cooper. The blogger claims he received no notice until his work disappeared and Google won’t tell him why he was cut off or if his content still exists. Cooper’s blog always contained controversial content and was a popular destination for fans of experimental literature and avant-garde writing.

His case highlights the intersection of first amendment rights versus the ability of private corporations like Google to allow or not allow content on their private platforms. Google has slowly been cutting back on storage services such as Google News Drives and Google Groups and Cooper’s content might not even still exist. If anything, this case highlights the importance of backing up content offline. It also raises the issue of how permanent anything is on the web.

AT&T Testing Drone Cell Sites. AT&T has been testing the use of drones as flying cell sites to use during big events. Large events always overwhelm local cellular sites and drones might be the answer to give access to many people in a concentrated area.

The company has already been using a technology that it calls COWs (Cells on Wheels) that are brought to large sporting events to provide more coverage. But the hope is that drones can be deployed more quickly and for a lower cost and provide better service. Of course, this just means more of a phenomenon I’ve seen a few times in recent years where people in the stands at a football game are watching the same game on their cellphone instead of looking at what is in front of them.

Huawei Creates 10 Gbps Cable Platform. We are in the earliest stages of deployment of gigabit broadband using DOCSIS 3.1 on cable systems and Chinese vendor Huswei claims to have already created a 10 Gbps platform using the new standard.

The company faces several hurdles to deploying the technology in the US since the company is under scrutiny by the US for doing business with North Korea and with Iran during the recent embargo. But the biggest issue with a cable company offering gigantic bandwidth over coaxial cable is freeing up enough bandwidth in a cable TV network to do so. Cable companies have to free up at least 24 empty channels to offer a gigabit over coax and it seems unlikely that are willing to try to open up a lot more channels than that for higher bandwidth. The only realistic scenario for going much larger than a gigabit is to migrate a cable network to IPTV and make the whole network into a big data pipe – but this is a very costly transition that means a new headend and new settop boxes. .

Facebook Develops Mobile Access Point. Facebooks has developed a shoebox size access point that can support wireless transmissions including 2G, LTE and WiFi. The box is hardened for the harshest conditions, is relatively low-powered and is intended as a way to expand Internet coverage around the world in poorer areas. Most of the world now connects with the Internet wirelessly and this access point can enable customers with a wide range of devices to gain access.