WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal regulators Thursday rejected a request by broadcasters to require cable and satellite operators to carry multiple digital channel offerings from local television stations.

The 4-1 vote by the Federal Communications Commission upheld a 2001 FCC ruling that said cable companies only must carry one digital channel per station.

Digital broadcasts offer sharper pictures than the traditional analog transmissions used in most TV sets in American homes. A digital signal also can carry more information without using any more space on the broadcast spectrum.

Some stations have chosen to use their digital signals for crystal-clear, high-definition broadcasts, while others have established multiple channels.

Cable operators have voluntarily agreed to carry multiple digital channels in some cities, but broadcasters say making it a requirement would benefit the public by giving them more programming choices. They contend that cable companies are afraid of the competition that more free, local “over-the-air” channels would give popular cable-only movie and sports networks.

The head of the National Association of Broadcasters, an industry group, called the FCC decision “anti-consumer” because it doesn’t deliver more free channels and vowed to continue fighting in Congress and the courts. “Consumers deserve more,” Edward Fritts said.

The cable and satellite industries have argued that the First Amendment gives the operators, and not the government, the power to decide what channels to carry. Requiring up to six digital channels would take up valuable space because there is room for only a limited number, cable operators say.

They also fear that broadcasters might use the extra capacity to carry nothing but shopping shows or infomercials.

Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, a trade group, praised the FCC decision as “a major victory for consumers,” leaving open space that viewers want for popular programming.

The cable companies also said the decision would force broadcasters to provide better quality programming that cable companies will want to carry.

“Cable operators want to carry high-definition TV and other compelling digital TV content, especially if that content addresses local needs,” Sachs said.

The four commissioners who sided with cable questioned whether they had the authority to force cable operators to carry extra channels and were skeptical of the need.

“This test is not whether multicast content is beneficial,” Republican Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said. But the evidence “cannot justify a conclusion that multicasting is necessary to the continued preservation of the benefits of broadcast television.”

The only dissenting commissioner, Republican Kevin Martin, contended the ruling would hamper the ability of small, independent minority and religious broadcasters to get on the air.

“The public could have benefited from more free programming,” he said.

Congress has told broadcasters to convert entirely to digital by December 2006 or when digital TV reaches 85 percent in a market, whichever comes later.

Some local stations are offering an all-weather digital channel in addition to a channel showing regular programming.

The two Democratic commissioners, Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, voted against the broadcasters, but said the FCC should have also considered guidelines on what public service obligations local stations have when broadcasting multiple digital channels.

The FCC on Thursday also rebuffed another request from broadcasters to require cable companies to carry both digital and analog signals of local stations as they switch to the new technology.

At Thursday’s meeting, the FCC also:

• Voted to change the $5 fee that consumers are assessed for switching long distance providers. New rules call for customers who switch via the Internet to pay a $1.25 fee; those who switch by calling a customer service representative would pay $5.50. This would give long-distance companies which don’t offer online switching more incentive to compete with carriers that do allow it, Chairman Michael Powell said. Copps disagreed and said more consumers would have to pay more since roughly 80 percent of long-distance switches are done through customer service.

• Voted to further study the complex issue of how phone companies compensate each other for accessing the telephone network. Commissioners said the current system is out-of-date as cell phones and Internet phone services become more popular.

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