FCC Throws Lifeline to Analog Cable-TV Customers

The Federal Communications Commission approved rules Tuesday night that it says will ensure that millions of cable subscribers will still be able to watch broadcast programming after the digital television transition in 2009.

The FCC says approximately 40 million households are analog-only cable subscribers. Tuesday's ruling will require cable operators to guarantee analog cable customers will receive broadcast channels until February 2012.

Meanwhile, on the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, the commission also approved new rules that will allow police and firefighters to better locate cell phone callers who dial 911 in an emergency.

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The meeting, originally scheduled for 9:30 a.m. EDT, was delayed for more than 11 hours as commissioners and staff hammered out compromises to the cable order and other items.

While the greatest impact of the digital television transition will be on viewers of non-digital televisions who receive their signals over the air, non-digital cable subscribers have also been a concern to the commission.

Beginning Feb. 18, 2009, broadcasters will stop transmitting old-style analog signals to over-the-air customers and to cable companies. Over-the-air customers will have to buy a converter box.

As for the nation's analog cable subscribers, cable operators must either convert the digital signal to analog at the point where the cable signal originates or supply customers with a "down converter" device that will change digital signals to analog at the TV set.

The cable industry pledged to do this voluntarily and launched a $200 million advertising campaign last week to reassure subscribers. The new FCC rules make compliance mandatory.

The FCC will also allow for certain smaller cable systems to request a waiver.

In other action, the agency voted to force cell phone companies to employ a much stricter geographic standard when testing the ability of rescue workers to locate callers in distress.

People who call 911 from a wired telephone can be traced to specific addresses. That's not the case with cell phones.

Carriers are required to test their location systems and be able to pinpoint callers within certain distances. But they have been allowed to test their equipment over their entire national service areas, meaning good results in one region may skew the average.

The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International has lobbied the agency to force carriers to measure location accuracy at the community level or "public safety answering point" level.

In the face of stiff opposition from cell carriers, the commission opted to phase in the new requirement over the next five years.