The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that proposes modifications to several of the current cable television technical performance, signal leakage, and testing rules in an effort to make the rules more compatible with digital cable technology. The NPRM also proposes various other modifications to its cable rules (Part 76 of the Code of Federal Regulations) to remove outdated language, correct citations and make other minor or non-substantive updates.

Background. According to the FCC, more than 80 percent of cable customers currently receive some level of digital cable service with that percentage expected to increase to 84 percent by the end of 2012. The FCC’s technical rules for cable operators were largely created when analog cable was the predominant (and in may cases, only) form of cable transmission. The proposed rules seek to update the technical rules to account for digital transmission, and in doing so, are intended to further facilitate cable operators’ transition to digital, which the Commission has recognized provides benefits for both consumers and cable operators.

Proof of Performance. The proof of performance, or signal quality, rules have been in place in some form since 1972 and are designed to ensure cable customers receive good quality transmissions from their cable operators. Section 624(e) of the Communications Act establishes a statutory mandate for cable signal quality standards, and the FCC adopted its current rules governing technical performance in 1992. The 1992 rules are applicable to only analog transmission technology. Cable operators using all-digital systems are currently permitted to apply for individual waivers to use “non-conventional technology.”

Seeking to move away from this case-by-case approach, the NPRM proposes new proof of performance rules applicable to digital transmission. The predominant form of digital transmission currently is quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM). For digital systems using QAM, the FCC proposes to adopt the SCTE 40 2011 Digital Cable Network Interface Standard, developed by the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers. The NPRM specifically requests comment from cable operators that have implemented periodic testing procedures based on the SCTE 40 standard regarding their experiences with implementing this metric and what procedures they have put into place to measure and ensure compliance with this standard. The NPRM also seeks comment on whether to supplement the SCTE 40 standard by adopting elements of SCTE’s recent Fourth Edition of its Measurement Recommended Practices for Cable Systems.

For non-QAM systems, the SCTE 40 2011 is inapplicable, so the NPRM seeks comment on whether it is possible to formulate a uniform signal quality standard or set of standards for the various available non-QAM systems. To the extent that such a uniform system cannot be developed, the NPRM proposes that a case-by-case approach be used for non-QAM systems, where each cable operator would be required to produce a testing and documentation plan to demonstrate a “good quality signal” is being delivered to customers. The FCC seeks comment on the minimum requirements for such plans and what objective criteria might be used to evaluate the plans.

The FCC also proposes to update its requirements for the number of channels that an operator is required to test. The NPRM proposes that a cable system with a total activated channel capacity up to 550 MHz will be required to test 5 channels; any system with a total activated channel capacity of 550 MHz or greater must test 10 channels. Hybrid systems would be required to test channels in proportion to the percentage of the system that is allocated to each type of transmission. The FCC proposes requiring at least one test point be located within each local franchise authority’s (LFA) jurisdiction. Cable operators would still be required to maintain proof of performance test results in the operator’s local business office for at least five years with such results being available for inspection by the FCC or LFA upon request.

Signal Leakage. Because coaxial cable systems can potentially interfere with the spectrum allocated to aeronautical users, in 1984 the FCC developed rules to require monitoring and correction of signal leakage. The FCC proposes to harmonize these rules with digital technology by removing the frequency offset requirement, which is incompatible with digital transmission. The NPRM also proposes a digital equivalency for analog cable leakage calculations. The FCC seeks comment on these proposals.

Other updates. The NPRM also proposes a clean-up of Part 76 of the FCC’s rules to “remove references to effective dates that have passed, make editorial corrections, update various technical standards that are incorporated by reference into [the] rules, and clarify language in Part 76.” In addition to inviting comments on these largely non-substantive modifications, the FCC welcomes additional proposals to update other technical rules that may not be applicable or otherwise need an update to adequately address digital cable transmission.

Comments on the NPRM will be due 60 days after publication in the Federal Register with reply comments due 30 days later.