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.

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