World Cup Viewing Imperiled in Colombia in Row Over TV Signals

After a 16-year wait for their team to play in soccer’s World Cup, millions of Colombians may not be able to watch a single game at home.

A week before the tournament’s opening ceremony, pay-TV operators America Movil SAB, Telefonica SA and UNE EPM Telecomunicaciones SA are determining whether they need to remove the games’ broadcasters from their channel lineups after a decision from Colombia’s antitrust regulator. The agency, known as SIC, said in a ruling this week that the operators must have broadcasters’ permission to carry their signals -- sending other government officials racing to sort out the legal implications.

“We’re very confused because we don’t know which authority to follow,” Juan Carlos Archila, president of America Movil’s Colombia unit, said in an interview broadcast yesterday on Caracol Radio. America Movil is the nation’s biggest TV provider, with 2 million subscribers, according to government data from December. EPM has 1.1 million, and Telefonica has 336,000.

SIC’s ruling struck at the heart of an intensifying dispute between cable companies and broadcasters. Colombia’s pay-TV operators have been required to retransmit RCN Television’s and Caracol’s TV signals for years under a law known as “must-carry,” which seeks to ensure all TV viewers have access to the most popular channels.

Broadcasters’ Offer

Now the broadcasters are asking the carriers to start paying a fee for the use of their signals -- and the cable companies are refusing. The broadcasters have offered to let the cable companies use their signals without charge until later this year, SIC Superintendent Pablo Felipe Robledo said yesterday, according to newspaper La Republica.

The operators won’t accept any agreement that might imply they will have to pay a fee in the future.

“For us pay-TV operators, the authorization from Caracol and RCN the antitrust regulator is referring to goes against the legal regimen for TV that’s been standing for 15 years,” UNE, America Movil, Telefonica and DirecTV said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

Without a new agreement, the pay-TV providers don’t have the right to use the broadcast programming, the SIC ruled.

Study Time

Colombia’s National Television Authority, a government agency, requested a period of time from SIC to study how to implement the ruling, according to an e-mailed statement.

America Movil’s Archila said the Mexico City-based company will be forced to take the signals off the air if it’s served with legal documents notifying them of SIC’s decision.

RCN Television and Caracol are each planning to broadcast 40 games, including all those played by Colombia, which until this year hadn’t qualified for a World Cup tournament since 1998. DirecTV, Colombia’s third-biggest TV carrier with 869,000 subscribers, will still be able to show the World Cup because it owns the rights to all 64 games in the competition.

About 4.7 million Colombians subscribe to pay TV services, according to data from the national TV authority. Almost 75 percent of them watch over-the-air signals through cable or satellite operators, with the rest using antennas to get the broadcasts for free, according to the pay-TV companies.

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