Two things appeared clear from the early returns on the DTV hearing in the Senate Commerce
committee Tuesday: The hard date for the return of analog spectrum and the switch to all-digital broadcasting is going to be 2009, and there will be some kind of subsidy for digital-to-analog converter boxes.
Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) said the committee was in general agreement that there would be a subsidy--he favored a means test--to make sure that viewers are not disenfranchised when their analog sets no longer work without converters. Legislators and broadcasters also seemed in agreement that the 2009 hard date was now a practical reality, if not yet a legislative one.
NAB President Eddie Fritts said the industry accepts that Congress will implement a 2009 hard date for the end of analog broadcasts, and said the industry is ready. Fritts said the NAB board voted three weeks ago to accept a hard date set by Congress, and to accept the fact that an 85% penetration caveat would be removed.
Currently, analog spectrum can't be reclaimed in a market until at least 85% of homes in that market can receive a digital signal.
NAB made its pitch for mandatory cable carriage of its multicast DTV channels, saying it was key to giving the viewers full value for the DTV transition with more free local news and public affairs programming. Fritts also said that broadcasters were prepared to accept specific DTV public interest obligations.
Cable and satellite representatives countered that they did not have the capacity to carry all of broadcasters' digital multicast channels. DirecTV Executive VP Richard Slenker said it would cripple that service's ability to provide HDTV and would require it to cut back on the markets it serves with local TV stations.
National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow argued that cable was going to need four to eight times the capacity to provide all the advanced services it wants to provide, including VOD, phone service, and internet service, for which it won't have the capacity if it has to carry both analog broadcaster signals and digital multicast signals.
Fritts said it wasn't a capacity issue for cable, but a competitive one. He suggested that the cable industry did not want to carry services that might compete with it. He distinguished that from the deal cable made with public broadcasting stations, said those stations would not be directly competing with existing cable services.
McSlarrow had some choice words for broadcasters, saying they were seeking special favors having failed to convince the FCC to give them DTV must-carry. He also said broadcasters were trying to "goad the cable industry with their passive-aggressive opposition to a hard date, calling it another opportunity for a land grab and an attempt to make Congress' job harder in making the DTV switch.
Still, the harshest criticism of broadcasters at the morning hearing--another, tech-centered DTV hearing was scheduled for afternoon--were supplied by former Commerce Committee Chairman Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).
McCain said that one of the "most disgraceful chapters" in the committee's history was what he called broadcasters' blocking of the return of analog spectrum for emergency communications, echoing previous comments that broadcasters would bear a "heavy burden" if there was a terrorist attack and first responders had trouble communicating.
He also pointed out that NAB used to support the 85% penetration caveat knowing that it could stretch the transition for decades--as former FCC Michael Powell once estimated.