Searching for Solutions

FCC staffers are trolling for Plan B for DTV transition



Like a basement inventor in love with his latest creation, Ken Ferree is talking up a plan to speed the DTV transition. But if congressional reaction is any gauge, he may be heading back to the drawing board.

Even as the FCC Media Bureau chief mapped out complicated details for the press and touted it as a "can't fail" solution to the digital transition's most obstinate snags, other FCC staffers behind the scenes were asking broadcasters and other industry types to help come up with Plan B.

Capitol Hill and industry sources say the plan to hasten the day when the government reclaims broadcasters' analog channels and auctions them to wireless companies is DOA. That is, unless Ferree reworks it to ensure that more viewers get the spectacular pictures promised by high-def.

That is not the commission's priority, Ferree said. "We'd love for people to get pretty pictures, but this part of the transition is not really about that. It's just about trying to make sure sets work" after analog channels go away. His plan could still theoretically turn millions of analog sets into landfill.

"So far," says a Hill staffer, "the reaction in Congress is agnostic to skeptical."

The cable industry and set makers also worry that diminished emphasis on HDTV will dampen demand for HD cable tiers and fancy sets.

Ferree dismisses suggestions that lawmakers' reaction is anything but positive. Nevertheless, a handful of congressmen have written to FCC Chairman Michael Powell, for whom Ferree has been pushing the plan, urging him to disavow it. Only Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain—a frequent critic of broadcasters—is known to have encouraged Ferree's idea.

As for broadcasters' complaints, Ferree said he wasn't surprised by NAB opposition. "They would rather eat their children than give up that spectrum," he told reporters. He complained that key points of the plan have been mischaracterized. The aim of the so-called (at least by the media) Powell Plan is to advance the day when enough consumers get DTV to meet the government's trigger for reclaiming analog channels.

Though dismissing the cannibal crack as "utterly ridiculous," the National Association of Broadcasters, sensing Ferree's weakness, plans to push its own counteroffer, which moves little beyond long-standing demands for carriage of the multiple channels that digital technology allows. Also, it insists that only viewers who get a complete digital signal should count toward the trigger.

The FCC's plan would allow the government to count cable-delivered DTV broadcast signals, even if cable operators send the digital signals as analog to their customers. The move would speed by a decade or more the day when 85% of viewers in a market are counted as served by digital, but it would not necessarily bring the bulk of them the super-fine pictures that digital allows.

Ferree said it is wrong to characterize the plan as a change in DTV rules, because the FCC has never said how it would define 85%. He also said it's wrong to say Congress meant only "beautiful pictures" to count.

Ensuring that sets work after the plug is pulled on analog has been one of the thorniest issues of the DTV transition. The biggest hurdle to Ferree's plan is the nearly 15% of Americans who get no cable or other pay TV and rely solely on over-the-air reception. Millions more have second and third sets not plugged into cable or satellite service. Ferree suggests those sets be equipped with digital-to-analog converters. For people too poor to pay for converters, he said, Congress should consider subsidizing the $50-$100 devices.

If the plan is approved by the FCC, Ferree said, broadcasters would have to choose either the analog conversion or full digital carriage only to subscribers with DTV sets by Oct. 11, 2008.

NAB says Ferree is moving too fast. His initiative, the group explains in a statement, is "simply a spectrum-reclamation plan that would strand both consumers and broadcasters."