When TV satellite dishes were big, they dotted the countryside. When they got small, they moved to the suburbs. Will they come to the cities?
No one's quite sure, because of the legal roadblocks faced by condominium owners and apartment dwellers. Federal regulators are struggling to come up with a solution. How they resolve it will say a lot about how society weighs the right to technology against the rights of property.
The problem is simple enough. Suppose you're a condominium owner who buys a digital satellite-TV system. To get a signal, you have to put the pizza-sized satellite dish outside. But where? Not on the outside wall. That's typically owned by the condominium association. Not on the roof, because that too is community property - owned by everybody in the building, not an individual.
"It's almost the same as if ... I decide to put my dish on your property," says Lara Howley, legislative and public-affairs coordinator for the Community Associations Institute, the Alexandria, Va., a group representing homeowner, condominium, and cooperative associations in the United States.
And don't even think about knocking through common walls to run satellite-TV cabling. While building managers aren't thrilled with the aesthetic effect of hundreds of dishes hanging off their buildings, they're adamantly opposed to people boring through walls or ceilings. "You don't want Joe Blow going up there and punching a hole through the roof," says Michael Nagle, a Maryland attorney who has written extensively on the subject. Joe could void the roof warranty, not to mention take over property he doesn't own.
That's the sticky part. Try to exercise your right to technology and pretty soon you've trampled the Bill of Rights.
But in its landmark telecommunications reform last year, Congress mandated that satellite TV be put on equal footing with cable TV and charged the Federal Communications Commission to write the rules. Last August, the FCC did strike a middle ground for homeowner associations (which can dictate anything from the look of each house to the color of the garbage cans). The FCC found that homeowners had the right to put up a small satellite dish, but associations could require them to make it less visible if that didn't interfere with TV reception.
Legally, the condo and apartment issue is trickier because there's no middle ground in the law, says Ms. Howley. "In the end, you're going to have to say: 'Yes, you can install on common property' or 'you can't.' "
Since satellite-TV technology caused this problem, it's possible it can alleviate it. Manufacturers, including Sony Electronics Inc., are working on systems where a single dish could feed hundreds or even thousands of apartments or condominiums at a time. But installers have already jumped into the fray with their own systems, including a Fort Lee, N.J., company called SkyView.
Since January, the company has installed its technology in more than 40 buildings, including one New York site with more than 300 units. Instead of many dishes, the association only has to agree to one. SkyView installs the system for free and handles the maintenance, which avoids the legal issue of who maintains a private dish on community property. And, unlike dish systems for single homes, SkyView installs a regular antenna so customers can pull in local broadcast channels as well as satellite fare.
The catch is the cost. Besides the $30 to $60 that customers typically pay their satellite TV service, SkyView charges an extra fee of about $10 a month. That's not exactly cheap, but it sure beats having your condo neighbors steamed at you for violating their constitutional rights.
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