Any US Airways passenger can tell you there is no such thing as a free ride. The cable industry, which got its start picking up "free" over-the-air broadcast signals and running them down coaxial cable, has seemingly forever battled those broadcasters over what free broadcasts are worth.

The FCC laid down a Communications Act that specifically "prohibits cable operators and other multichannel video programming distributors from retransmitting commercial television … broadcast signals without first obtaining the broadcaster’s consent."

Generally, it’s no big deal, sort of a mutual back-scratching exercise. Lately, in the digital universe where broadcast ratings are eroding more quickly than New Jersey beaches, things are getting testier. Comcast, which usually keeps its business hidden in a vault somewhere in Philadelphia, actually issued a press release saying it was "continuing to have productive discussions" about retransmission agreements with Sinclair Broadcast Group, a TV broadcaster with 58 TV stations in 36 markets reaching approximately 22 percent of U.S. households. Coincidentally – of course, since nothing in cable is ever planned – CableLabs on the same day announced an initiative to create specifications for receiving over-the-air digital broadcasts. It’s all in the box Broken down in the noisome way that journalists like, these specifications would define how a digital cable box could receive, tune and deliver over-the-air digital channels mixed with cable channels so a cable operator, so inclined, would not need to retransmit digital broadcast signals, but subscribers would, ostensibly, still be able to see their local broadcasters. Taking that just a paranoiac step further, this would seem to be a good answer to any broadcast group demanding usurious fees for cable placement.

Retransmission avoidance could be an element to the initiative, admitted Dick Green, CableLabs CEO, but the overall purpose is much more complex. And despite the coincidence of a CableLabs release appearing day and date with Comcast’s, the plan has been in the works at the Labs for some time as a way to keep up with the approaching digital transition.

"You may have people who want this when the analog signals go away as a way of tuning digital," Green said. "There are multiple uses for this box. I don’t think it’s motivated by a very narrow interest; there are a lot of good reasons for adding a tuner."

To be fair, there are multiple ways to use such a revamped cable box – including as a paperweight. Since transitioning broadcast signals to digital will obsolete analog, people who want to see and hear television will need digital tuners. Multiple implementations "We’re still looking at various design concepts here, but there will probably be multiple implementations of this – a set-top box, maybe an after-market sidecar kind of approach. I expect there will be different designs for different situations."

It would be beating a dead horse to say what the most obvious of those situations might be. – Jim Barthold

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