- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

As Congress returns to work this week it will face a number of complex legislative proposals, and few more so than digital television transition legislation. However, one aspect of this legislation, now being promoted by the TV broadcasting industry, is simple — broadcasters are trying to use Congress to expropriate without compensation a part of their major competitor’s assets. As it is, broadcasters can force cable TV providers to carry their principal video signal free of charge. What the broadcasters want now is to expand that “must carry” requirement so that local cable companies will have to carry up to six broadcaster channels as part of the service they offer customers.

Must-carry rules are, in fact, an odd — and increasingly indefensible — relic of the early days of telecommunications regulation. In the beginning, broadcasters were granted portions of the radio wave spectrum, considered to be a scarce public resource, and were subject in return to various public service requirements as a result. Years later, when cable TV came along, must carry rules were imposed on cable providers even though they do not use the scarce radio wave spectrum. The justification, such as it was, was that broadcast TV needed to be preserved for households that did not have access to cable, even though the result was to prevent cable operators from using those channels to provide other non-broadcast services of greater value and appeal to their customers.

The number of households without access to cable has shrunken, and the number of non-broadcast services competing for access to cable households has dramatically increased. Broadcasters, however, are determined to hold onto their “must-carry” rights, and hope to expand their reach from one to six channels — based on advances in digital transmission technology. Cable providers are understandably outraged. Unlike broadcasters, which do use a public resource (which they receive from the government at no charge), cable providers have had to construct (and pay for) every inch of their transmission capacity. The cable industry, for example, invested nearly $100 billion to upgrade their broadband pipe (which carries video, voice and high speed internet service) with fiber optic technology over the last 10 years — at no cost to the taxpayer. The broadcasters have, in short, been getting a free ride on someone else’s dime (cable TV customers in the end) and they now want to cram even more of their passengers onto the bus.

Congress should see this for what it is, an effort by one private group to use government as a means of taking the property of another, simply say no to any expansion of the must-carry rules.

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