Law Dishes Satellite Customers Shot at Tuning in Local Television Channels

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Satellite dish customers in metropolitan areas like Washington can receive local channels for the first time as part of the spending bill President Clinton signed into law yesterday.

The service, which costs $4.99 to $5.99 per month, will be available by the end of the month for the 579,000 satellite-television subscribers in the District, Maryland and Virginia. EchoStar Communications Corp., which operates as the Dish network, will give area customers local access immediately, while larger rival DirecTV Inc. will offer access by the end of the month.

The provision will create competition in the cable-satellite market and allow the telecommunications industry to fulfill the promise of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated the business, analysts said. They expect satellite subscriptions to take off with the change.

Offering local-station programming rounds out the satellite networks' television packages, putting them on par with cable services.

"The biggest reason stopping more people from subscribing to satellite television is the difficulty getting local signals," said Armand Musey, a satellite industry analyst for Banc of America Securities.

Satellite companies have been permitted to offer local channels to consumers in rural areas who didn't get good TV reception. Other subscribers had two options - get an antenna or subscribe to basic cable.

With those inconveniences eliminated, satellite subscriptions are expected to increase another 500,000 a year, Mr. Musey said. He projects that the industry will add 2.5 million customers a year, up from his previous 2 million projection before the law was passed.

"We lost a lot of customers at the point of purchase" because they were unwilling to give up local channels, said Judianne Atenzio, director of communications for EchoStar, based in Littleton, Colo.

Satellite retailers in her area saw a wave of new subscribers come in over their lunch breaks yesterday, she said.

Though satellite TV subscriptions are expected to increase and cable companies see satellite as tough competition, local cable executives at Starpower in the District and Cox Communications in Fairfax County aren't planning to cut cable rates. About 68.5 million people subscribe to cable nationwide, 3.4 million of them in the District, Maryland and Virginia - numbers that far surpass satellite subscriptions.

In contrast, 12. …