Glossary of Cable Television Terms

Access Channels: Cable channels, including public, educational, and governmental, made available to community members on a free or leased basis either with or without studio and production facilities. An Issuing Authority (governmental entity authorized to grant a cable license or franchise) may require that such channels be provided as part of a licensing agreement. The cable operator may not exercise editorial control over the programming on these channels, except that a cable operator may refuse to transmit any programming that contains obscenity or indecency, 47 U.S.C. § 531 (compare Local Origination).

Access Corporation: A corporation organized within a municipality for the purpose of operating that municipality's access channel(s).

Advanced Television Systems Committee (“ATSC”) Tuner: A high definition (HD) tuner that by the end of 2014 is required to be in every new television with a screen 20" or larger. It receives over the air broadcast signals from local channels via an antenna, not a cable.  This tuner must be connected to a roof top or attic mount antenna, and in certain situations even a table top antenna will receive the local HD broadcasts.  If an icon indicating available in HD/5.1 is displayed at the bottom of the television screen, an ATSC tuner with an antenna is needed to receive HD broadcasts.

Analog: Technology originally designed for transmitting voice (e.g., telephones) where signals are sent as electromagnetic waves. For video service, the signal is sent from the television broadcaster to the local cable operator to the subscriber's home. Along the way, there are a series of amplifiers; however, the manner in which the signal is sent is analogous to making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy so that by the time the signal gets to the subscriber's home, the quality of the picture or audio may not be as clear as the original, meaning there may be snow or noise interference (compare Digital).

Ascertainment: A process that affords the public with an opportunity to comment and participate during the initial licensing of a cable operator or the renewal licensing of the incumbent cable operator. It is also a period of time for the Issuing Authority to gather data and review the cable operator's past and present performance and to identify the community's future cable-related needs and interests.

Basic Service Tier (also referred to as BST). Lowest level of service available and required by federal law to include, at a minimum, the retransmission of local television broadcast signals and local public access channels. Rates for the basic service tier are the only programming rates currently regulated.

Blackout: Term used to describe the non-broadcast of a live event (e.g., sports, cultural) usually imposed by the sponsor(s) of the event (e.g., NFL).

Broadband: Descriptive term for evolving digital technologies that provide consumers with a single-switched facility offering integrated access to voice, video, video-on-demand, high-speed data (Internet), and interactive information delivery.

Cable Advisory Committee (“CAC”): The CAC is appointed by the Issuing Authority (government entity authorized to grant a cable license or franchise) and its role varies according to the authority defined by the Issuing Authority.  Its main responsibility is to negotiate cable licenses with operators and oversee the ascertainment process.  In addition, the CAC acts as liaison to the cable operator by supervising the cable operator's response to complaints, responding to residents' questions regarding the cable system, and staying abreast of community programming issues.

CableCARD: A CableCARD (or point-of-deployment module) allows a consumer to access cable programming using a digital cable-ready television set or a retail set-top box (navigation device) instead of renting a set-top box from a cable operator.  Cable operators must provide subscribers with CableCARDs upon request.

Cable Home Wiring: The cable wiring dedicated to a subscriber’s premises on the subscriber’s side of the Demarcation Point, including inside wiring, but excluding any active elements such as amplifiers, converters or decoder boxes, or remote control units (see Demarcation Point). The subscriber bears responsibility for costs associated with repairing Cable Home Wiring. Many providers will offer subscribers maintenance coverage for Cable Home Wiring for a monthly fee.

Cable Programming Service Tier (also referred to as CPST): Unregulated service tier that typically includes channels such as CNN, ESPN, Lifetime, MTV, and Nickelodeon. Subscribers wishing to obtain CPST programming must subscribe to the basic service tier and in some circumstances must rent or purchase a converter.

Coaxial Cable: A type of wiring that is widely used in the cable television industry and can carry voice, data and video simultaneously.  The coaxial (or “coax”) cable consists of an inner conductor on which signal voltage is impressed with respect to the shield. The center conductor is surrounded by a dielectric, then a shield. Frequently, an insulation layer surrounds the shield.

Converter: Equipment authorized by and often provided by a cable operator for a fee that allows access or controls interference to cable services. Digital converters use computer technology and provide two-way transmission resulting in access to digital programming and interactive services, such as the on-screen purchase of pay-per-view movies and on-screen television guides (see also Set-Top Box).

Demarcation Point:  The term Demarcation Point refers to a point on the cable wiring located, in the case of a single residence, approximately 12 inches outside of a subscriber’s home or, in the case of a multi-dwelling unit building, at the point where the wiring is first physically accessible outside of the subscriber’s unit. On the subscriber’s side of the Demarcation Point, the wiring is called Cable Home Wiring and the subscriber is responsible for costs associated with maintaining the Cable Home Wiring. The provider is responsible for the maintenance of the cable wiring on the other side of the Demarcation Point. 

Department of Telecommunications and Cable (“Department” or “DTC”): Pursuant to Governor Deval Patrick’s Reorganization Plan, Chapter 19 of the Acts of 2007, the Department of Telecommunications and Energy (DTE) ceased to exist, effective April 11, 2007.  The DTE’s telecommunication jurisdiction, under General Laws, Chapters 159 and 166 as well as other chapters, was transferred to the DTC and the DTC also assumed the duties and powers previously exercised by the Cable Division of the DTE under General Laws, Chapter 166A.

Designated Market Area (also referred to as DMA): Standard established by Nielsen Media Research used to determine a broadcast station's market area. The FCC adopted this standard under which broadcast stations are given options of carriage by either selecting mandatory carriage (must carry) or retransmission consent (may carry) for each cable system operating within the broadcast station's DMA.

Digital: Computer technology that transmits signals by breaking up the message into electronic bits, sending the message over the network, and recreating the message at the other end. Since the signal is recreated at the end location, the system is less sensitive to interference such as noise and snow. In addition, digital technology allows for compression so that more channels can be carried. Often cable operators who utilize digital technology will offer digital cable television, high-speed data (Internet), and digital telephone services such as Voice over Internet Protocol (compare Analog).

Distant Signal: A television channel from another market (DMA) imported and carried locally by a cable television system, e.g., "Superstation" WPIX Channel 11, New York.

Early Termination Fee (“ETF”): A fee that you agree to pay to a service provider if you end a service contract before it expires. ETFs are included in contracts for a variety of services including cable service and satellite TV.  Depending on your service plan, there may be no ETF. While ETFs are generally pro-rated over the term of the contract, they don’t all decrease at the same rate.

Easement/Right-of-way: An easement is the right to use the real property of another for a specific purpose. The easement is itself a real property interest, but legal title to the underlying land is retained by the original owner for all other purposes. Typical easements are for access to another property for utility or sewer lines both under and above ground.  Easements can be created by a deed to be recorded just like any real property interest.  

Effective Competition: Where a competitive cable operator starts to provide service in the same municipality as a regulated cable operator, the regulated cable operator may seek a determination from the Federal Communications Commission ("FCC") that there is sufficient competition to control basic service tier ("BST") rates and thus government regulation is no longer required. If the FCC grants the cable operator's petition, the FCC deems the municipality to have effective competition and revokes the Department’s authority to establish BST rates for the cable operator in that municipality.

Equal Opportunity Rule: If a political candidate obtains time on a broadcast station, other candidates for the same office may obtain an "equal opportunity" on that station. Equal opportunity usually includes equal time, but the term means more than equal time. For example, it means the right to obtain time in a period likely to attract approximately the same size audience as the period in which the opposing candidate appeared. Bona fide news programming is exempt, meaning that a news program may determine one candidate is especially newsworthy on a specific occasion and does not need to provide equal coverage or opportunity to the other candidate(s).The equal opportunity rule applies to local origination channels and broadcast channels; it does not apply to access channels which are handled on a first-come first-served, nondiscriminatory basis.

Federal Communications Commission (also referred to as FCC): Federal agency responsible for the regulatory oversight of the communications infrastructure in the United States.

Franchise Fee: Under federal law, non-capital costs relating to license requirements are considered franchise fees and may be passed on to subscribers. For example, local officials, in negotiating the cable license, may require cable operators to set aside channels for public, educational, or governmental use. The monies spent to maintain the access studio, equipment, and personnel are considered franchise fees and may be passed on to subscribers. A municipality may request up to five percent of the cable operator's annual gross revenue from operating in the municipality.

Franchise Related Costs (also referred to as FRCs): Any capital expenses incurred by the cable operator as a result of required public, educational, and governmental channels, such as purchasing or upgrading access equipment and facilities. These franchise related costs may be recovered from subscribers through basic service tier rates or alternatively, may be listed as a separate fee on subscribers' monthly bills.

Franchising Authority: Legal term for governmental entity authorized to regulate rates, oversee the licensing process, and enforce customer service standards. In Massachusetts, the Department is the Franchising Authority (compare Issuing Authority) for purposes of rate regulation. 

Headend: The electronic control center of a cable system. This is the site of the receiving antenna and the signal processing equipment essential to proper functioning of a cable system.

High Definition Television (also referred to as HDTV): Improved television system that provides approximately twice the vertical and horizontal video resolution of existing standards and audio quality approaching that of compact discs. The result is an enhanced picture and audio quality.

Homes Passed: Those homes within a municipality that are located close enough to a cable line to be able to connect with cable service, regardless of whether those households actually opt to subscribe to the cable service.

Information Requests: Prehearing discovery in the nature of interrogatories and requests for documents, Mass. R. Civ. P. 33, 34.

Inside Wiring Rules: FCC regulations governing the disposition of cable wiring inside multi-dwelling unit (MDU) buildings. These rules are designed to enhance competition among video service providers by making existing wiring in MDUs available under certain circumstances for competing providers’ use. The FCC’s inside wiring rules may be found at 47 C.F.R. §§ 76.800 et seq.

Institutional Network (also referred to as I-Net): A separate closed loop network for municipal institutional use only. Used to connect police, fire departments, town or city hall, and schools; can contain both video and data; can also be used to monitor heat, light, and security systems.

Issuing Authority: Legal term for the governmental entity authorized to grant a license or franchise to a cable operator. Under Massachusetts law, the Issuing Authority is either the Mayor of a city, the Board of Selectmen of a town, or the city manager of a city with a plan D or E charter (compare Franchising Authority).

License or Franchise: An agreement between the Issuing Authority and the cable operator that authorizes the construction or operation of a cable system. It also establishes the terms and conditions of cable television service such as the length of the contract, customer service standards, and procedures for funding access channels. Under Massachusetts law, the term of an initial license may not exceed fifteen years and the term of a renewal license may not exceed ten years.

License Amendment: Formal change in the terms and conditions of an existing license. The procedure for license amendment is found in 207 C.M.R. § 3.07.

License Fee: A fee of $1.30 per subscriber per year that cable operators are required to pay pursuant to Massachusetts law to offset the cost of regulation. The License Fee is divided between the municipality (receiving 50 cents) and the Commonwealth (receiving 80 cents) (compare Franchise Fee).

License or Franchise Renewal: Contract executed by the Issuing Authority and the cable operator that renews the authorization to operate a cable system. Under Massachusetts law, the term of a renewal license may not exceed ten years.

Line Extension: Construction of a cable line in an area that falls outside or exceeds the primary service area as defined in the license. The cable operator may require that subscribers pay for the extra costs involved in laying cable to this geographical area. (See also Primary Service Area; compare Non-Standard Installation).

Local Origination: Cable channel owned and operated by the cable operator and over which the cable operator may exert editorial control. Typically carries programs of local interest and local advertising and may carry public, educational or governmental programming if provided for in the license. (compare Access Channels).

Must Carry: Refers to situation where commercial and noncommercial television broadcast stations are considered local to the area served, and therefore the cable operator is required to provide the channel on the basic service tier in that area (see Local Signals).

Non-Duplication Rules: Restrictions placed on cable television systems that prohibit the providing of programming from outside the service area if the programming is simultaneously available on a local channel.

Non-Standard Installation: Installation of cable service or a drop line that exceeds the standard installation distance specified in the license, which is typically greater than 150 feet from the cable line existing on a public road. The cable operator may charge the subscriber for the costs of laying the cable this extra distance (compare Line Extension).

Obscenity and Indecency: The United States Supreme Court set forth a three-prong test to be used in determining whether individual programming constitutes obscene or indecent speech. More information may be found on a fact sheet at the FCC's website (

Overbuild: When a competing cable operator builds a cable network system in an area already serviced by a cable operator, this competing cable operator is known as an overbuilder.  All cable licenses in Massachusetts are required by law to be nonexclusive.

Parental Lock Capability: Option or feature available on some televisions that allows a user to block access to channels usually by activating a PIN number and programming a TV and/or cable set-top box t to limit or control the programs that can be viewed on your TV (see V-Chip).

Pass-Through Costs: Certain costs that may be recovered directly from subscribers (see Franchise Fee and License Fee).

Pay-Per-View: Programming, typically movies or special events, that a subscriber specifically requests to receive for a single fee added to the monthly cable bill. Some cable operators have the capability of determining whether the pay-per-view program was purchased via telephone or by on-screen interactive remote control and whether the converter channel was then set on the appropriate movie channel in order to receive the programming. Rates for pay-per-view programming are not regulated.

PEG: Public, educational, and governmental channels (see Access Channels and Local Origination).

Premium Channels: Channels not included in a cable operator's regular service tiers. HBO and Showtime are examples of premium channels. In order to obtain premium channels, cable operators are allowed to require that the subscriber purchase the basic service tier, rent or purchase a converter box, and pay additional fees. Rates for premium channels are not regulated.

Promotional Price or Promotional Rate:  A promotional price or rate is a discounted price or rate commonly offered by a cable or bundled services provider for a limited period of time (the “promotional period”).  Upon the termination of the promotional period, the price or rate of the service changes (the “subsequent price”).  Subscribers should ensure they understand the promotional price, the termination date of the promotional period, and the subsequent price before purchasing services.

Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (“QAM”) Tuner:  A high definition (HD) cable tuner used to receive HD cable broadcasts without a box by connecting the coax directly to the television. Very few cable companies in the United States provide this option currently and some type of descrambling device (converter, digital transport adapter, or CableCARD) will likely be needed to descramble signals to the subscribed programming.

Rebuild: Process where the cable television system in a municipality is reconstructed as if there were no existing wires or capabilities (compare Upgrade).

Record Request: Where fault of memory or complexity of subject precludes a responsive answer by a witness at an evidentiary hearing, a request for written response may be issued. The response to the record request is part of the record and the evidence, unless challenged as unresponsive and expunged in whole or part.

Renewal Proposal: Application presented by a cable operator to a municipality setting forth its plan regarding the rights and responsibilities of both parties in providing cable services to the municipality. It typically outlines the cable operator's recommended term and conditions for the renewal contract. When presented as a formal proposal, the application must include Massachusetts Form 100.

Renewal Window: Refers to the 3-year period, beginning 36 to 30 months prior to a license's expiration, during which a municipality may renew a license following the Formal Renewal Process.

Request for Proposal (also referred to as RFP): Documentation provided to cable operator(s) by a municipality seeking to initiate original licensing or renewal process. It outlines what the municipality expects the cable operator(s) to include in the proposed contract and includes questions that require the cable operator's response.

Retransmission Consent: Cable operators are required by law to obtain the broadcaster’s consent in order to retransmit local commercial and non-commercial television stations.

Service List: List of parties and limited participants in a proceeding. Persons named on the service list receive all documents issued in the case.

Service Tier: Grouping of cable channels for which a separate rate is charged by the cable operator.

Set-Top Box: Equipment authorized by and often provided by a cable operator in a subscriber's home that allows access to or controls interference from cable services (see also Converter).

Signal Bleed or Signal Leakage: Excessive levels of radio frequency (RF) energy that leak from cable television systems. Leaks can cause interference to communications users, including safety service users such as aviation, police, and fire departments. FCC rules specify the maximum RF leakage and require that cable television systems be operated within certain guidelines. The term also refers to video or audio coming through on a scrambled channel.

Signal Scrambling: Cable television companies typically encrypt or scramble the signal of channels that the subscriber has not purchased so only people who pay for the service will receive and view it.

Small System: A small system is defined by Federal Regulations as "a cable television system that serves 15,000 or fewer subscribers. The service area of a small system shall be determined by the number of subscribers that are served by the system's principal headend, including any other headends or microwave receive sites that are technically integrated to the principal headend."  47 C.F.R. § 76.905(c).

Upgrade: Process where cable television system is modified through the addition of electronic components capable of providing enhanced services. Upgrade typically occurs on a municipality basis (compare Rebuild).

V-Chip: System that is built into television sets and allows users to screen out, based on television ratings, programs they do not want household members to watch. Those subscribers with older television sets may need to purchase a set-top box that utilizes V-Chip technology in order to access this feature (see Parental Lock Capability).

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) Service: Service that: (1) enables real time, 2-way voice communications that originate from or terminate to the user’s location in internet protocol or any successor protocol; (2) uses a broadbandconnection from the user’s location; and (3) permits users generally to receive calls that originate on the public switched telephone network and to terminate calls to the public switched telephone network.  M.G.L. 25C, § 6A (a).

Sources: Communications Act of 1934, as amended, Section 601, et seq., 47 U.S.C. § 521, et seq.; 47 C.F.R. § 76.1 et seq.; Federal Communications Commission website (; National Cable & Telecommunications Association website (; The Essential Guide to Telecommunications, Annabel Z. Dodd (1998)