Senate-approved Satellite Bill Might Aid DBSers, Consumers

Your cable company might not be the only television pipeline in town for much longer, thanks to legislation passed late Thursday, May 20, by the US Senate. The measure, backed by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), allows direct broadcast satellite (DBS) program providers to begin beaming local TV channels into the same localities from which they originate, just as cable providers have always done. A similar bill was recently passed by the US House of Representatives.

The bill will help level the playing field between satellite and cable. One of TV viewers' long-standing objections to satellite service has been the lack of local broadcasts. "Local-into-local," as the retransmission of local signals is known, has been prohibited until now by the Federal Communications Commission. The practice has been a point of contention in a major lawsuit brought by TV networks against DirecTV, one of the biggest satellite services.

Cable companies control 85% of the home-subscription market, and they were freed from rate limits in April. Congress has been under pressure from consumer groups and satellite companies like EchoStar to provide a legal solution to the problem of runaway local cable monopolies. EchoStar has lobbied for three years for the right to air local signals. Television service in the US is a business worth $43.5 billion per year.

Satellite companies are not free to pick and choose which local signals they will transmit---they must broadcast all local channels if they choose to air any. EchoStar CEO Charlie Ergen says this might negatively affect his company's service to customers in rural areas, but the majority of viewers live in metropolitan areas, and they will have more choice about who delivers their television programming. According to Senator Hatch, "This bill provides for greater consumer choice, lower prices, and more quality programming for satellite viewers in both the rural and urban parts of my state and the nation."