Federal regulators insist that tens of millions of cable subscribers with analog TV sets will not lose access to local TV stations when broadcasters begin transmitting signals digitally in early 2009.
The Federal Communications Commission said Wednesday night that it wants public input, however, on how best to ensure that an estimated 32 million households can still view these stations following the Feb. 17, 2009 transition.
By law, cable operators' subscribers must be able to view all local broadcast stations.
Since 2001, the FCC, on two separate occasions, has considered a proposal that would have required cable companies, such as Comcast Corp., Time Warner Inc. and Charter Communications Inc., to carry both analog and digital signals. But the proposal was rejected both times.
While broadcasters support that "dual carriage" proposal, cable operators, who are currently required only to carry a broadcaster's primary signal, have described it as government interference.
Kyle McSlarrow, president and chief executive of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, called such a plan "unconstitutional," in a statement issued Wednesday.
Cable operators have said they will do what it takes to ensure their subscribers can view broadcasts once the switch occurs in two years. They don't want the government to tell them what to do, they said, such as force their subscribers to buy a set-top box, which is a device to convert a digital signal into an analog one.
In a statement Wednesday, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who favors a proposal requiring cable companies to carry both signals, said he also didn't want to force cable subscribers to rent a set-top box.
Other commissioners said they're willing to consider other ideas apart from the dual carriage and set-top box proposals.
There are a total of 65.6 million households that subscribe to cable TV, according to the cable trade association.