Barton, Stearns: Early DTV Switches 'All But Impossible'

FCC's Media Bureau has been "inundated" with broadcaster's request to make the switch early if date moved

The FCC's Media Bureau has been "inundated" with requests from broadcasters to make the switch early if the DTV transition date is moved to June 12, but a couple of powerful legislators doubts many of those requests can be accommodated.

That is according to some House Republicans, who have asked acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps for info on how many TV stations would actually be able to transition early if, as appears likely, the House this week follows the Senate's lead and approves a bill to move the DTV transition date to June 12.

Ranking Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) and ranking Telecommunications & Internet Subcommitee Member cliff Stearns (R-FL) told Copps in a letter they were worried that interference concerns would keep most stations from transitioning before the June date, meaning that "most of the spectrum promised to First Responders would also be unavailable until the delayed transition date.”

Making it clear that, where feasible, first responders would get access to the spectrum closer to the original Feb. 17 date was one of the changes in the Senate bill that got Republicans there, led by ranking Senate Commerce Committee member Kay Bailey Hutchison, to sign off on the date-move bill, but Barton and Stearns argue that it would be "all but impossible" for most stations to make the transition early and turn that spectrum over to first responders, even if they wanted to.

A spokesman for Senate Commerce Committee Republicans was checking at press time on whether that would change their thinking about the date change.

Barton and Stearns praised Copps' recent speech to staffers about open communications and transparency, then asked that the Media Bureau be open and transparent with them by providing a list of the stations that could turn off their analog and turn on their post-transmission digital facilities if the date were delayed. That would mean stations that could do so at full digital power (so that viewers would not lose signals) and without interfering with other stations.

The legislators said that if the FCC can't specify a list, the FCC's best guess of an approximate percentage of which it was "reasonably sure" would suffice.

They said they needed an answer ASAP--by tomorrow (Feb. 3) at 3 p.m., pointing out that the House is expected to consider the DTV date-change bill Wednesday, "without befefit of any hearings or markups to examine whether the legislation will, in fact, work."
A Copps spokesperson was checking into the legislator’s request at press time

Barton and Stearns have been critical of the date move, which was pushed by the Obama administration, and of the allocation of $650 million in the economic stimulus package for the DTV-to-analog converter box coupon program. They argue that all that is needed is fixing an accounting problem to free up the waiting list for coupons, and introduced a bill that would do that.

The House will be voting for a second time on the DTV date-change bill. It voted last week on the bill, but that effort was via expedited rules--no amendments, limited debate--that required a two-thirds vote. The vote was instead 258 to 168. All it will need this time out is a simple majority, so that same number or anything even close will do the trick.