A controversial plan to provide broadcasting directly from satellites to homes was given a boost yesterday by the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC sought public comments on a staff proposal to set up a new regulatory system -- much less restrictive than current broadcasting regulations -- for direct satellite broadcasting (DBS) service. The decision in effect gives Communications Satellite Corp. the go-ahead to continue planning to operate the service, now in the initial planning stages.
Comsat, the Washington-based satellite communications company, is the only company that has announced plans to operate a DBS system and has started the complex research connected with the program, which has a price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars.
"We are encouraged that the FCC plans to move ahead with deliberations with respect to direct broadcast satellites," said John Johnson, chairman of Satellite Television Corp., the Comsat subsidiary that is developing the service.
"We are convinced that our planned satellite-to-home subscription television service will deliver significant public benefits, and we are equally certain it would be in the public interest for the government to promote direct broadcasting satellite technology." Johnson said.
Many factions of the broadcasting industry have expressed fears that DBS service might threaten local broadcasters and have suggested that the unique nature of the service requires congressional study. Cable television industry officials have taken more of a cautious approach in discussing DBS.
The service presents a series of regulatory difficulties for the FCC since it is a combination of a variety of technologies. Until yesterday it was unclear whether the commission staff would recommend that DBS service be regulated as a broadcasting or satellite service or a combination of the two.
But the FCC staff suggested a minimal regulatory scheme for DBS. "Regulation will not help achieve goals set forth in the 1934 Communications Act -- in fact, it may hinder such achievement -- if the industry is sufficiently competitive and imposes no major costs or benefits not accounted for by the market," said the FCC's office of plans and policy.
The staff report said that to impose detailed broadcasting or common carrier regulation on this service, while the FCC is deregulating communications services in a wide variety of areas, "would be to ignore the lessons of recent years and create yet another service in need of deregulation at some later date."
Calling the prospect of DBS service "exciting," FCC member Joseph Fogarty said it could offer more variety in radio and television services but warned that an FCC staff prediction of vast numbers of new broadcasting services as soon as 1985 "is not as open-ended as predicted by the staff, particularly in these inflationary times."
"DBS will not come into the competitive arena" until cable and conventional television, as well as newer broadcast forms, "have all had the opportunity to gain a foothold in the video programing marketplace," Fogarty added.
But FCC Chariman Charles Ferris endorsed the DBS regulatory scheme, noting that the unwillingness of the commission and its staff to stick to the heavy, traditional regulatory apparatus indicates the commission "has come a long way in a short time.
"I believe the point of today's action is that the question of whether there should be such a service should be decided by consumer demand and the capability of the technology -- and not by the costs of regulation," Ferris said.