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ACA: Emergency Information Accessibility Regulations Need To Be Tailored By FCC

Cable Group Fears Cost Of Unfunded Mandate Would Force Many Analog-Only Systems To Shut Down

PITTSBURGH, March 8, 2013 - The American Cable Association called on the Federal Communications Commission to take account of smaller cable systems - particular those still providing analog service - when implementing provisions of the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA) requiring distributors to make emergency information visually displayed by broadcasters accessible to the blind and visually impaired audience.  ACA proposed a series of targeted measures the FCC can take to ease the burden of compliance for operators of these cable systems.

"By taking the measures proposed by ACA, the FCC can achieve the goals of making emergency information provided by broadcasters in an on-screen crawl accessible to the blind/visually impaired community without forcing cable systems to purchase equipment related to the delivery of broadcast stations to their customers in an analog format," ACA President and CEO Matthew M. Polka said.

For operators of some cable systems that offer both digital and analog service, such equipment purchases would not be the most cost effective way to ensure that blind and visually impaired customers have access to emergency information, and would also significantly delay systems' transition to all-digital platforms.  For the smallest all-analog systems, a rule that requires the purchase of this equipment would very likely result in the majority shutting down completely, a result detrimental to all subscribers, whether blind, visually impaired or not.

ACA set forth is views in a March 7 ex parte letter in connection with an FCC rulemaking designed to increase access to emergency information included by broadcasters in on-screen crawls during non-newscasts for blind and visually impaired viewers. The FCC proposed to require broadcasters to convey this information aurally in a secondary audio program (SAP) stream and video programming distributors such as cable operators to pass it through to their subscribers. While fully supportive of the laudable goals in the landmark 2010 disabilities law, ACA made a compelling case that an unrestricted, one-size-fits-all approach would potentially destabilize hundreds of ACA Member systems and disrupt some cable operators' pre-planned, cost-effective efforts to modernize their facilities by transitioning to all-digital delivery of video programming.

In a meeting with FCC officials from the Media and Consumer and Governmental Affairs bureaus, ACA representatives requested, in light of ACA's concerns, that the FCC adopt a tailored approach that will achieve the goals of the CVAA without unreasonably pushing the most financial precarious cable systems to the brink of financial ruin or worse.

In its presentation, ACA requested that the FCC:

  • Permit hybrid digital/analog systems that do not have the equipment to pass through the broadcast SAP on their analog service the option of making emergency information accessible to blind or visually impaired customers through that system's digital service by providing eligible customers with set-top boxes at no charge for up to three analog television sets in their home at the time of the request.  
  • Provide an exception for all-analog systems that serve 1,000 or fewer subscribers and lack the equipment to pass through broadcast SAP.  When an all-analog system is upgraded to hybrid digital/analog service, the exception would no longer apply and the system would need to meet the obligation to make emergency information accessible, the same as any other hybrid digital/analog system.
  • Defer for three years application of the emergency information pass-through requirement for all-analog systems with more than 1,000 subscribers.

ACA explained that the cable industry is in the middle of transitioning from delivering programming in analog to delivering it in digital - a self-funded technological overhaul that began more than a decade ago, and may not be fully completed for another decade.  Today, cable systems in operation today fall into one of three categories: all-digital, hybrid digital/analog, and all-analog.  All-digital systems are capable of passing through SAP without the need to purchase additional equipment.  Most operators are in the middle of the transition, and operating hybrid digital/analog systems where all channels are offered in digital, with some channels simulcast in analog for customers receiving service on an analog television set without a set-top box.  However, there are also some cable systems that have yet to transition away from an all-analog platform.  These systems either have plans to offer some digital services in the near future or no plan to transition because they see no return on such an investment.

ACA explained that the FCC's proposal to require that CVAA-covered emergency information be transmitted over a SAP stream would present technical challenges to hybrid digital/analog and analog-only cable systems because of the lack of the equipment necessary to enable the pass-through of a SAP stream on their analog service.  If the requisite equipment is not already present in the headend, performing the steps necessary to pass through SAP will mean substantial upgrades, on a per channel basis, for cable system headend equipment.  Cable operators typically carry at least four broadcast stations per system.

ACA provided evidence from a recent survey of its members that showed some cable systems, both hybrid digital/analog and all-analog, particularly smaller ones, do not have the receiver/decoders necessary to pass through SAP intact and/or continue to rely on legacy monaural audio modulators providing only a single audio stream.

ACA also explained that operators adding and/or replacing a receiver/decoder and replacing legacy monaural modulators with modulators that have SAP capability would incur more than minimal costs for each cable system, costing as much as $1,700 per channel, plus labor.

ACA stressed that the exemption it is proposing for all-analog systems with 1,000 or fewer subscribers would impact a relatively small number of pay-TV subscribers.  Subscribers of ACA Members' all-analog systems represent just 0.14% of all MVPD subscribers nationwide, and some of these all-analog systems have the capability to pass through the SAP of the broadcast stations.  Therefore, the number of customers of ACA members that would be affected is likely lower.

About the American Cable Association

Based in Pittsburgh, the American Cable Association is a trade organization representing nearly 850 smaller and medium-sized, independent cable companies who provide broadband services for more than 7.4 million cable subscribers primarily located in rural and smaller suburban markets across America.  Through active participation in the regulatory and legislative process in Washington, D.C., ACA's members work together to advance the interests of their customers and ensure the future competitiveness and viability of their business.  For more information, visit http://www.americancable.org/

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