The Federal Communications Commission has told US satellite-TV operator EchoStar Communications that its requirement for customers to instal a second satellite dish to receive local stations is illegal.

EchoStar – which is in the process of buying satellite market leader DirecTV – agreed to carry all local channels on its Dish Network late last year [WAMN: 31-Dec-01], in order to comply with regulations introduced on January 1 that if any local stations are offered to customers, all must be.

However, the broadcaster said the only way to achieve this was to instal second dishes on the homes of subscribers who opted for the local channel package, and agreed to put these in without cost to the customer.

The FCC ruled that this arrangement broke laws demanding that satellite firms supply local channels in an undiscriminatory manner, since some local stations were received through the main dish and others through the second dish. This was not sufficiently explained to customers.

EchoStar, which has 6.5 million subscribers across the US, was told it must take action to comply with the regulations immediately.

A number of solutions were suggested by the FCC, such as shifting all local stations onto the same satellite (negating the need for a second dish). Alternatively, the two-dish system would be acceptable to the federal agency if EchoStar’s handling of customers improved.

“Today we took an important and necessary action to ensure that all broadcast stations are carried in a nondiscriminatory manner,” declared FCC Media Bureau boss Ken Ferree. “EchoStar's two-dish plan was implemented in such a way as to make some stations unavailable to subscribers as a practical matter.”

The ruling is unlikely to have any drastic effect on the FCC’s decision on whether to block the DirecTV purchase, though it will certainly not help. EchoStar faces considerable opposition to the acquisition, including the National Association of Broadcasters, which brought up the complaint about the two-dish system with the FCC.

Data sourced from: The Washington Post Online; additional content by WARC staff