Senate Considers Speeding Up Digital TV Transition

Broadcasting's longest-running soap opera returned to Capitol Hill yesterday, as a key Senate committee again considered setting a firm date for the much-delayed transition to digital TV.

July 13, 2005

3 Min Read
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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Broadcasting's longest-running soap opera returned to Capitol Hill yesterday, as a key Senate committee again considered setting a firm date for the much-delayed transition to digital TV.

Witnesses from both industry and consumer groups impressed upon the Senate Commerce Committee the urgency of completing the DTV transition. In addition to mandating all-digital programming, the move would free up the 700 MHz analog spectrum for innovative wireless services and for emergency channels for first responders.

"700 MHz is the ideal frequency for providing wireless broadband in both rural and urban markets," said Charles C. Townsend, president of Aloha Partners, a major holder of the 700 MHz spectrum in the United States. "Not only can 700 MHz be used to provide high-speed Internet access, but it can also offer low-cost VOIP service for voice customers."

Nonetheless, senators seemed in little hurry to dramatically speed up the final transition, which would occur no later than January 1, 2009 under Congress' latest proposal. This late date is actually an improvement over current rules. Congress previously mandated that analog TV transmissions would end only after 85 percent of viewers in a local market could access a digital signal, a goal that could take a decade or more under current DTV adoption rates.

Hearing attendees appeared resigned that the end of analog TV would take years. Given that reality, witnesses urged senators to set a date in stone and stick to it."CEA unequivocally endorses the establishment of January 1, 2009 for the recovery of the analog spectrum," said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. "The setting of a date certain will benefit consumers as spectrum is reallocated for purposes ranging from public safety communications to exciting new services such as wireless networking and Internet access."

Several senators, though, stressed that the United States could not wait another three-plus years to free up the 700 MHz analog signal, particularly for first responders. They expressed concern that, in the interim, the crowded spectrum could thwart communications in emergency situations.

"Events in London should reinforce that this is a compelling issue," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "Today, our first responders do not have the ability to communicate with each other. Now, we're looking at December 2009. I'm not sure that America can wait that long."

While McCain focused on security issues, the day-long hearing also featured the continuing brawl between over-the-air broadcasters and the cable industry. For its part, the National Association of Broadcasters wants any digital solution to continue to allow consumers to view free, over-the-air TV, stated NAB President Edward Fritts. His rival, Kyle McSlarrow of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, countered that over-the-air broadcasters were trying to use the proposed DTV legislation to appropriate channel capacity on cable systems through must-carry rules.

Senators expressed their own concerns, particularly about the impact of the legislation on their TV-loving constituents. Their worst nightmare: on January 1, 2009, millions of analog sets would suddenly go black, angering voters. By then, converter boxes should be widely available, alleviating that problem, said Mike Kennedy, senior vice president of Motorola. The congressional legislation is widely expected to include some type of subsidy or rebate to help finance the consumer purchase of the set-top boxes, which should cost $50 to $100 apiece.Still, senators worried about the potential backlash from ordinary citizens. For most Americans, it'll come as an unwelcome surprise that they'll soon have to buy new digital sets or, at least, buy and hook up set-top boxes to continue to receive programming.

"They have no idea what's about to hit them," said McCain.

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