Spectrum Return Trumps HDTV

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Leaders of the House Commerce Committee Wednesday heaped praise on the Federal Communications Commission's plan to accelerate the digital-TV transition, with its chairman saying that government spectrum needs trumped ubiquitous HDTV.

The support is an ominous sign for broadcasters, who oppose the plan because it would obligate TV stations to return their analog channels to the government before most viewers have purchased the high-definition television sets that take advantage of digital's benefits.

But reclaiming the channels--and selling them off to new technology business--is the government's priority, not new digital TV services, said Rep. Joe Barton, Commerce Committee chairman. The 1997 law requiring the switch to DTV "is not about promoting high-definition directly but about reclaiming analog spectrum as soon as possible," said the Texas Republican during a hearing on the FCC's plan.

Developed under Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree's leadership, the FCC plan would count all cable subscribers as digitally served by local broadcasters, even if the subscribers don't have a digital set and their only access to local broadcasters' digital offerings are cable signals that have been "downconverted" to analog.

The FCC's plan would let nearly all cable customers be considered digitally served almost immediately.

The 1997 law states that broadcasters must return their old analog channels to the government when 85% of homes in any given market are considered capable of receiving a station's DTV signal. In most markets, the result of the FCC plan would obligate broadcasters to return their analog channels to the feds at the government's discretion. Ferree said the giveback date should be Jan. 1, 2009.

Ferree told lawmakers that the FCC must be proactive in defining how the 85% test will be reached or the transition won't be completed for decades. "If we wait for 85% of consumers to have digital equipment in their homes, we could be waiting until 2050 or beyond," he said.

Barton even seemed intrigued by the FCC's solution for dealing with the 15% or so of Americans who might lose TV entirely if analog channels are shut off in 2009.

Those at-risk viewers are folks who do not subscribe to cable or satellite TV and are too poor to buy a digital set. The FCC has suggested that the government use a portion of proceeds from auctioning analog channels to pay the $50-$100 for supplying them with a digital-to-analog converter that would keep their old sets functioning.

Barton suggested that the subsidy would be a bargain if it speeds the creation of new wireless and other telecom businesses. "If we debate when is the best time to have the digital transition, we'll still be having that debate 30 years from now," he said.

Commerce Committee ranking Democrat John Dingell also praised the FCC for striving to speed the day when broadcasters return their spectrum. "Continued delay only serves to inhibit innovative companies and to dampen their ability to attract capital and create jobs," said the Michigan Democrat.

Rep. Fred Upton, chairman of the Telecommunications Subcommittee, didn't throw his full support behind the FCC plan, but said it "brings a lot to the table."

Broadcasters oppose the plan, arguing that they will have spent $16 billion on digital transmission equipment with no guarantee that cable viewers will receive their high-definition programming or other digital services. To soften that impact, Ferree recommends that cable systems be required to carry all of a station's multicast signals.

The prospect of winning multicast carriage rights wasn't enough to satisfy National Association of Broadcasters President Eddie Fritts, who called the plan "against the best interests of the American consumer."

If the offer wasn't sufficient to get Fritts' support, it may have soured cable operators on the plan. "The DTV transition plan should not provide broadcasters with expanded must carry rights," said Robert Sachs, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

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