Small Cable Companies of the HD Hook

One of the most common misconceptions about the transition to digital broadcasts next February is that “everything will have to be HD”. Another one is that cable companies will be forced to switch to HD. Both of those are false, mostly.

First, the government is not requiring that all TV content be in high definition. It is only requiring that terrestrial TV broadcasters (and only the full-power stations at that) broadcast only in digital and end analog broadcasts. Yes, digital signals are required in order to get HD content over the air, but not all the content has to be in HD.

And the federal government’s broadcast transition does not mandate any changes for cable TV service providers. With one exception: if a local TV station carries HD content, then the local cable service has to make that HD content available to subscribers. This means that the local cable service has to offer a digital HD service as an option. For the big, urban services, this is not a problem as they’re doing that already. However, for smaller rural systems with few customers, adding a digital service in addition to their existing analog service can be a serious financial hardship.

Last week, the FCC lifted the local HD requirement for any cable system with fewer than 2,500 subscribers or 552 MHz of bandwidth or less. These companies will have until February 17, 2012 — an extra three years – before they have to comply. The exception to this waiver is that it does not apply to cable systems owned by Comcast or Time Warner, the nation’s two largest cable companies. Any of their small services will still be required to comply with the local HD requirement.

As we get closer to the cut-off data for analog broadcasts, we seem to be encountering more and more exceptions. You can count on people getting more confused as we get closer to the transition date.