By CableFAX Daily at The Cable Show FCC chairman Kevin Martin may have bought himself a little bit of goodwill before his appearance at the Cable Show in Las Vegas today, with the Media Bureau announcing Friday the approval of set-top ban waiver requests for Charter Communications, Alaska’s GCI and Millennium Telcom.

Of course, it wasn’t enough of a present to erase his a la carte, dual must-carry and 30% cable ownership cap proposals. (Now if the FCC had granted the NCTA’s request to delay the integration ban until operators deploy a new downloadable security system or until 2010, Martin may have gotten some cheers from the crowd. More from Paul Maxwell below).

The FCC chairman’s speech to attendees at the Las Vegas show’s opening general session today was a tad nervous. He joked that he didn’t want to start a riot on the first day of the show, acknowledging that he’s not particularly welcome in cable circles these days. He also softened his remarks. While he (as expected) banged the drum for a la carte, he dropped parts of his prepared speech—posted on the FCC’s website or available as PDF document here—that went into more detail on why he’s pushing cable to adopt that model, including citing example in Canada (Rogers Cable) and Hong Kong.

News that Charter’s waiver was granted reached president/CEO Neal Smit just before he began a 1Q all-employee meeting Friday at the MSO’s St Louis HQ. Charter shares closed up 7% Friday at $3.63.

"We commend Chairman Martin and the FCC for granting this important waiver," Smit said today in a statement. "With this relief, Charter will be better positioned to offer its customers, especially those in more rural markets, greater value through advanced video services, high-speed Internet access, and a choice for telephone service."

Nearly 300 days after Charter filed its waiver request, the Bureau ruled that it could continue to deploy seven integrated set-tops after July 1, ’07 because of the financial hardship the ban would create (Charter told the FCC that it has more than $20 billion in outstanding debt obligations, which is almost 11 times its annualized EBITDA).

Under FCC rules, operators can only deploy set-tops with separable or downloadable security after July 1, ’07. In most instances, that means operators will have to deploy boxes with CableCARDs, even if consumers don’t want them. Under the waiver, Charter can keep deploying lower-cost Motorola DCT-700 and DCT-2500e; Scientific Atlanta‘s Explorer 940, Explorer 1840, and Explorer 3200; and Pace‘s "Chicago" DC501p and "Indiana" DC511p integrated set-top boxes until July 1, ’08. Charter can apply for an extension of the waiver if it believes financial difficulties warrant it.

The Bureau also granted conditional waivers to Millennium and GCI based on their commitment to go all-digital before Feb 17, 2009. A similar waiver was granted to Bend Broadband in January. Cablevision also received a waiver in January that allows it to continue deploying its set-tops, which already provide separable security (just not through a CableCARD). Comcast‘s request to have certain low-end boxes waived was denied by the Bureau in January, with the MSO currently seeking a review of the decision by the full Commission. There are still dozens of waiver requests pending at the Commission, including NCTA‘s and Verizon‘s.

Paul Maxwell’s take before Martin’s speech:

This afternoon in the glitz of Las Vegas, Federal Confusion Commission Chairman Kevin Martin(et) is scheduled to come bearing gifts for the cable industry … gifts made with such a cynical aura around that any company but Charter should refuse them. Charter gets a waiver for set-top box deployment because it has financial issues. That’s sound public policy from a Republican Administration? That’s sound public policy at all? That’s sound public policy from a regulatory agency? Some 300 days after filing for a waiver—a waiver that ALL cable companies should get because it is a bad law made worse by technological change that the law can’t keep up with!—this FCC delivers a waiver! Days before The Cable Show? Cynical isn’t the half of it. Contempt is more like it.

& Maxwell’s take after:

So he came; but he sure didn’t conquer. Good for Kevin Martin(et) for showing up; and good for him (I suppose, at least one lobbyist gives him high marks—for this) for sticking to the folks that brung him to the table. But he didn’t convince me … with his wildly tortured logic he continues to bring up a la carte … perhaps it is the solution to everything that ails mankind … but I don’t buy it. Martin(et) seemed nervous, "surprised" to be at the show. Hey, we’ll invite anyone that hold a sword over our heads. – PSM from Las Vegas

The Daily



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