DTV Bill Covers Many Bases


In the "but wait, there's more department," besides setting a Dec. 31, 2008, "hard" deadline for ending the switch to all-digital TV, draft legislation unveiled by the House Commerce Committee Friday attempts to settle many other unresolved issues regarding the DTV transition.

They include: 1) when the federal government will auction TV channels slated to be reclaimed by the government, 2) when all broadcasters will have their final digital channel assignments, 3) and the extent of consumer education programs broadcasters and set makers must undertake to make sure viewers are prepared.

Here's a snapshot of the bill's other key provisions:

· DTV channel assignments: By Dec. 31, 2006 the FCC must allocate final assignments between chs. 2 and 51. Appeals of those assignments must be resolved by July 31, 2007.

· Cable carriage: Cable operators may continue providing all local must-carry  TV stations' signals to customers in an analog format, but only if they also make a digital version available. Any high-definition programming broadcast by the stations must be carried without any degradation in signal quality.

 · Spectrum auction: Chs. 52-69, which are slated to be reclaimed by the government, would be auctioned by the FCC on April 1, 2008.

· Consumer education: 45 days after the the bill's enactment, TV set makers must place warning labels on analog-only sets explaining that those sets won't receive TV signals after Dec. 31, 2008 unless hooked up to a converter box or a pay-TV service. From July 1 to Dec. 31 of 2008, TV stations must air a minimum of two 60-second PSAs providing the same information. During the same time frame, cable operators and satellite TV providers shall include that information in monthly bills. The FCC also would be required to engage in a public outreach campaign.

· DTV tuner mandate: Beginning July 1, 2006, all sets 13 inches and larger that have analog tuners must also contain tuners capable of receiving digital over-the-air broadcasts.

· The Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on the draft bill Thursday.

The current DTV law, enacted in 1997, sets a target date of Dec. 31, 2006, for ending analog broadcasts, but exempts any market where fewer than 85% of TV households are equipped for digital reception. Because the pace of consumer DTV adoption is too slow, the end of analog broadcasts would not be achieved for many years after 2006.

Setting a hard date is necessary, according to a preamble introducing the new bill's provisions, because the current flexible DTV phase-in is "delaying the digital television transition and the return of the spectrum."

Also, requiring the FCC to determine when each market has met the 85% penetration test will be "extremely cumbersome." Finally, consumers, industry and the government will find it "extraordinarily hard" to know for sure when everyone must buy DTV sets, analog-to-digital converter boxes or begin subscribing to pay TV on order to continue receiving television programming.

The legislation also says a set deadline will have the added benefit of allowing broadcasters, set makers and the FCC to conduct consumer education programs that explain the type of equipment that will be needed beginning Jan. 1, 2009.

A precise lead time also will enable equipment manufacturers to build large quantities of low-cost converters, which could cost as little as $40 by some estimates.

The Dec. 31, 2006, deadline for assigning all broadcasters their final channel allocations is necessary because broadcasters who have digital assignments on channels 52 and higher are slated to be reclaimed then by the government and auctioned for new communications services or doled out to police, fire and other local emergency departments around the country.