FCC Plans DTV Push; Spectrum Questions Persist

With the digital television (DTV) transition six months away, the Federal Communications Commission today announced an ambitious education campaign to make sure that no one is caught by surprise when television broadcasters shut off their analog transmissions next February.

Beginning later this month, the five commissioners and their staffers will travel across the country to promote education and awareness about the DTV transition, scheduled for Feb. 17, 2009.

In a press conference today, Chairman Kevin Martin pledged that the commissioners would visit at least 80 cities where 100,000 people or 15 percent or more of the population still receives television via over-the-air signals. Once the transition occurs, older sets without built-in digital tuners will go dark. Martin, well aware that he could have a riot on his hands if people are caught by surprise, said he is launching an “unprecedented nationwide tour” to ensure that doesn’t happen.

“The commission is devoting significant resources to facilitating this transition,” Martin told reporters. “We intend to take whatever actions are necessary to minimize the burden on consumers.”

Meantime, abandoning the spectrum that has been the conduit for over-the-air TV broadcasts will free up a great chunk of the airwaves that is prime real estate for wireless companies looking to build larger, faster networks. But the spectrum land grab did not end with the 700 MHz auction, where the FCC sold off $19.6 billion worth of airwaves, mostly to wireless leaders Verizon Wireless and AT&T (NYSE: T).

The FCC is still grappling with a host of spectrum-related issues, including the matter of the so-called white spaces, the areas of unused spectrum that lie in between television channels. When the DTV transition is complete, those white spaces will be vacated with the rest of the analog spectrum.

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) has been among the most vocal advocates for the FCC opening these pockets of unlicensed spectrum for new wireless networks, calling it “Wi-Fi 2.0.” Today, Google kicked off the Free the Airwaves campaign with a Web site offering video testimonials touting the white spaces as a way to expand Internet access throughout the country, and encouraging visitors to sign a petition calling on the FCC to make the spectrum available.

Joining Google in its campaign for white-space access is a diverse group of tech companies, such as Motorola, Dell and arch-rival Microsoft, as well as predictable allies in the nonprofit sector such as the progressive policy groups New America Foundation and Free Press, the group coordinating the Internet for Everyone movement, promoting universal broadband access.

Those opposed to freeing up white space spectrum

In strident opposition to the white space movement is the National Association of Broadcasters, the industry group representing terrestrial television and radio broadcasters. The NAB has been a consistent critic, noting that white-space devices have proven unreliable in several FCC tests, and has warned that a reckless allocation of the spectrum could interfere with devices like microphones, as well as digital television broadcasts following the February transition.

Google has countered that test failures alone should not be enough to scotch the initiative.

The FCC is expected to make a decision on the white spaces in the coming months.

The FCC’s ambitious campaign

In that time, the commissioners and their staffers will have a busy travel schedule, thanks to the ambitious education tour they rolled out today.

At each of the cities, a commissioner will hold an event to discuss the DTV transition, such as a town hall meeting or a workshop. The commissioners will also make themselves available to local media to help get the word out.

Martin said that the FCC’s polling has shown that roughly 80 percent to 85 percent of Americans are aware that the DTV switch is coming, up from 35 percent to 40 percent a year ago. That heightened awareness is in large measure the result of a sweeping advertising campaign engineering by the FCC and the NAB.

Local broadcasters in many cities have been experimenting with soft shutoff tests, taking their analog broadcasts dark for a day, so residents can determine whether they will be affected next February.

The FCC has chosen Wilmington, N.C., as a test market to implement the transition early. On Sept. 8, analog broadcasts will go dark in that town, with the traditional analog channels playing service announcements about the DTV transition.

The FCC also announced the formation of a speakers bureau today, pledging to provide any community a representative to discuss the DTV transition upon request.

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