Satellite Bill Wins Approval in Washington

The nation's 10 million satellite TV subscribers may soon be able to receive local broadcasts through their dish antennas, thanks to a bill passed in Washington on Thursday, November 18. Direct-broadcast satellite (DBS) services had been hamstrung in their efforts to compete with cable companies because of Federal Communications Commission restrictions that forbade them to retransmit local signals within areas reachable by stations originating those signals.

"Local-into-local," as the practice is called, will now be legal if the massive budget appropriations bill of which the satellite bill is part passes muster by the combined House and Senate. (According to reports from Washington, most legislators believe the appropriations bill will pass without difficulty.) The newly approved DBS bill will possibly allow viewers in the top 50 or 60 markets—major metropolitan areas—to receive local stations via satellite by the winter holidays. "By Christmas of this year, consumers across the nation will have a real choice other than their cable operator," said Senator Thomas Bliley (R-VA). "Satellite providers will be able to offer consumers local news, weather, and sports."

There is no legislative pressure for a quick rollout of local-into-local service, however. DBSers have until 2002 to begin delivering local broadcasts. The bill specifies that if they carry any local signals, they must carry all—big, small, and in between.

The majority of television households in the US obtain TV programming via cable. The cable system in most communities is the domain of one operator, which has a legally mandated monopoly in any given area. The monopolistic nature of the cable industry has generated legendary resentment on the part of customers because of what they perceive as poor customer service. Several surveys have determined that the lack of local stations is the determining factor in preventing customers from signing up with DBS services instead.

Unfortunately for rural viewers, a $1.25 billion loan provision in the satellite bill, to help DBS companies deliver local signals to outlying areas, was killed by Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) as a form of corporate welfare. The transmission capacity of existing satellites is already near maximum, DBSers say. The winners, as of November 18, are viewers in cities and suburbs. The bill also extends the rights of DBSers to continue transmitting network and superstation signals, something that would have expired had the bill been held over beyond the holiday season. Internet service providers (ISPs), incidentally, have no legal rights to transmit TV signals.