RealTime IT News

Broadcasters Agree to Hard Date DTV Transition

WASHINGTON -- After nine years of aggressive lobbying to slow the digital television (DTV) transition, broadcasters are dropping their objections to a Jan. 1, 2009, deadline to end U.S. analog broadcasting.

The policy reversal by the powerful and influential National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is considered a key element in forcing broadcasters out of their current "beachfront" analog spectrum and into the digital spectrum that was sent aside for broadcasters in 1996.

Congress wants to turn over part of the vacated spectrum for first responder uses and auction off the rest for as much as $30 billion to wireless broadband providers.

"Broadcasters accept that Congress will implement a 2009 hard date for the end of analog broadcasts," Edward O. Fitts, president and CEO of the NAB, told the Senate Commerce Committee.

Although Congress voted in the 1996 Telecommunications Act to move broadcasters out of their analog spectrum by Dec. 31, 2006, the NAB mounted a successful campaign the next year for new language that effectively blocked the DTV transition.

The modified language said if more than 15 percent of the homes in a market could not receive a digital signal, the broadcasters could retain the analog spectrum. Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell testified last year the rule would put off the digital television transition by at least a decade.

Annoyed by the broadcasters' continued delay in moving out of the analog spectrum, both the House and the Senate are preparing legislation with a Dec. 31, 2008, date certain for broadcasters to vacate the spectrum.

"Completing the digital television transition is the most critical communications issue facing the 109th Congress," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said. "More spectrum for first responders was a key recommendation of the 9-11 Commission. Our nation can't wait any longer. I wish it could be sooner, but this presents the most reasonable deadline."

Two weeks ago, McCain introduced his Save Lives Act of 2005 (the Spectrum Availability for Emergency-Response and Law-Enforcement to Improve Vital Emergency Services Act), calling for a hard deadline and a nearly $500 million converter box subsidy program.

"We're here to work with you in moving legislation that will complete this transition and that will free analog spectrum for other important uses," Fitts said.

A skeptical McCain had no praise for either the broadcasters or his fellow lawmakers. Last year, when McCain served as chairman of the Commerce Committee, he failed to get his hard deadline legislation out of his own committee, primarily due to NAB lobbying.

"I think one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of this committee's Congressional oversight is the way the NAB has continued to block this transition," he said.

The DTV transition became an unexpectedly hot issue in the 109th Congress when the Republican leadership directed the House and Senate Commerce Committees to find $4.8 billion each in new revenue to help slice the deficit.

A possible $30 billion auction of the broadcasters' analog spectrum to wireless broadband providers proved irresistible to lawmakers dealing with the deficit. In addition to McCain's bill in the Senate, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) is promoting similar legislation.

The hard deadline also brings questions about federal funding to help lower income families afford a digital converter box before analog television sets go dark in 40 months.

"Telemundo supports a hard cut off date for ending analog broadcasts," Manuel Abud, general manager of KVEA-TV in Los Angeles, said on behalf of the nation's largest over-the-air Hispanic network. "But setting a hard deadline remains only one piece of the puzzle."

Abud said 43 percent of Telemundo's viewers don't have cable or satellite television and depend exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts.

"[They] must have some federal support for their purchase of equipment that will ensure their sets do not go black the day analog broadcasts cease," he said.