September 16, 2016 - 10:45 am
By Michael O'Rielly | Commissioner

Over the last number of years, I have had the opportunity to meet with small cable providers from throughout the U.S.  In one conversation, I focused on their particular circumstances serving rural parts of America and the costs of operating a broadband/telephone/video network in the current regulatory environment.  As I tend to do, I sought out ideas on how we could make their lives easier from a regulatory standpoint.  In other words, are there ways to reduce burdens without undermining the Commission’s overall mission and requirements under the statute?  I was particularly struck by the simplest of requests: look into eliminating or modifying the cable signal leakage rules for those companies that have deployed fiber in a service area.  While it is easy to conclude that our rules are obsolete as they pertain to fiber networks, the harder step is actually fixing the situation.    

When these rules were adopted, a traditional cable system used coaxial cable to transmit radio frequency (RF) signals carrying content to residential and business consumers.  If operated properly, such systems do not cause any interference to spectrum users, such as aeronautical and navigation users.  However, RF can “leak” from a cable coaxial system for various reasons, including loose connections, damaged plant or cracked cables.  As a way to prevent this from occurring, system operators are required under the Commission’s rules to conduct regular monitoring for signal leakage, maintain logs showing the date and location of any leak, and test annually to demonstrate that a systems cumulative signal leakage is below acceptable interference levels.   I learned during my meeting with the small cable providers a while back that, to comply with the annual testing requirement, they rent a small plane and circle their territory with appropriate RF sensors to determine if there any leakage.  In the grand scheme of things, this is not a huge expense ($5,000) but when you operate 15 small systems, it costs upwards of $100,000 adding in time and labor.  And that’s money that can be used to curtail rate increases or expand the network’s reach to unserved homes. 

Today, many cable operators are replacing coaxial cable with fiber, but our rules remain the same.  To be clear, the Commission has looked at this issue before as part of a larger proceeding, but some substantial and valid concerns were raised about other ideas in that item.  While I don’t want to reopen the many discussions in this proceeding, we can and should move forward to consider changes to our cable signal leakage rules for systems in which an extensive amount of fiber is used.  With fiber there are no radio frequencies being used, and therefore no RF interference, which the Commission stipulated back in 2004.[1]  Specifically, the thin strands of glass composing fiber effectively replace RF transmissions with pulses of light and color, meaning the technology produces no signal leakage at all.  Accordingly, it would seem to make sense that cable systems that are predominantly fiber should not be forced to comply with Commission rules that were adopted for a previous technology.  Doing so would reduce the cost of compliance for cable systems willing to make the huge investment in fiber-rich networks.  Dare I say, it could even become a very small enticement to deploy fiber?     

There are many ways we could go about fixing this – rule change, declaratory ruling, waiver, etc. – but with the emphasis placed on fiber by some at the Commission, the least we can do is remove rules that make no sense in a fiber-based world.  This very minor step seems like one we can make without much controversy.            


[1] Amendment of Part 76 of the Commission’s Rules to Extend Interference Protection to the Marine and Aeronautical Distress and Safety Frequency 406.025 MHz, MB Docket No. 03-50, Report and Order, 19 FCC Rcd 7244, 7246 ¶ 8 (2004).