Millions of people who get their television broadcasts via satellite dish will be able to receive local stations, thanks to a new law that sweeps away a decade-old restriction on such services.
The legislation, enacted just in time for the holiday shopping season, paves the way for dish owners to receive local weather, sports and advertising from ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox network affiliates.
President Clinton signed the act yesterday as part of the end-of-session budget package.
The nation's top telecommunications regulator hailed the law as a tool to promote competition, saying that he was eager to make it work.
"We will aggressively implement the new Satellite Home Viewer Act so that consumers will have viable alternatives to cable," said Federal Communications Commission Chairman William E. Kennard.
"Competition remains our best hope of combating [cable] rate increases," Kennard said.
The second-largest satellite TV company announced that viewers in Washington and 12 other cities could get access immediately, having started "the minute after the president signed the bill at 12:38 this afternoon," said Karen Watson of Littleton, Colo.-based Echostar.
The company predicts that it will provide local stations in 30 cities by early next year.
DirecTV, the biggest company in the industry, opened local service in New York and Los Angeles immediately and said it would roll out service in Washington and four other cities "shortly thereafter."
Eddy W. Hartenstein, president of DirecTV, called the new law "a victory for consumers and a landmark milestone for the satellite TV industry" that would allow his company to market service with local channels to about 50 million households in 25 cities nationwide.
Satellite TV currently reaches about 10 million households, compared with about 70 million homes reached by cable service.
Although the law allows satellite companies to begin providing local service immediately, the companies have six months to negotiate with the broadcasters for the full rights to rebroadcast those transmissions.
Today's satellite systems use pizza-size rooftop dishes and set-top boxes that cost $250 or less and can receive hundreds of channels at subscription prices ranging from $20 to $80 per month, and high-speed Internet access and audio programming as well.