30-Day Safety Net OK’d

Congress sent President Bush last Wednesday a compromise bill that would permit analog-TV stations to beam emergency and other information for 30 days beyond the Feb. 17, 2009, transition to all-digital, over-the-air television.

The original House bill, sponsored by Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), would have required TV stations to participate under a program designed by the Federal Communications Commission. But the bill awaiting Bush’s signature makes TV-station compliance strictly voluntary as a result of changes made in the Senate to the bill sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

“Coupled with our billion-dollar campaign to educate Americans on the digital-TV transition, this timely legislation will give broadcasters one final resource to ensure that no TV viewer is left behind due to insufficient information,” National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said last Thursday.

Bush is expected to sign the bill, but a White House press spokeswoman could not confirm that.

Under current law, no full-power TV station is allowed to continue analog broadcasting after Feb. 17. The Capps-Rockefeller bill, at a minimum, extends the analog cut off for 30 days for the limited purpose of broadcasting emergency information and key details about the transition to digital for consumers who could not or would not prepare for the cessation of analog service.

The bill gives the FCC until Jan. 15 to develop the program and “encourage and permit” TV stations to follow it.

“I expect broadcaster participation where technically feasible,” said David Donovan, president of the Association of Maximum Service Television, a technology advisory group for local TV stations.

The idea for the legislation came from the FCC’s Sept. 8 DTV test changeover in Wilmington, N.C.

After shutting off regular analog service at noon, the market’s stations continued to broadcast in analog until Sept. 30, airing just a text message that provided details about the DTV transition that had just occurred.

“Despite saturation advertising announcing the change and a geographic topography most conducive to it, nearly 2,000 households [in Wilmington] woke up to find that their televisions did not work; when extrapolated to the entire nation this could mean that at least 1.5 million households will wake up on February 18 without a working television,” Capps said in a House floor statement last Wednesday.

In designing the program under the Capps-Rockefeller bill, the FCC has a number of limitations. It can’t require cable carriage of the analog signals; it can’t rely on TV stations using spectrum earmarked for public safety after Feb. 17; and it can’t rely on stations between channels 52 and 69 because much of that spectrum has been won at auction, with the winners eager for analog TV stations to vacate.

To the extent TV stations participate, they need to provide information in English and Spanish that is accessible to persons with disabilities.

“We expect most markets will participate in the program since the legislation has broad support among stakeholders, including the NAB,” Capps spokeswoman Emily Kryder said.

The next big event in the DTV transition is to occur on Jan. 15, when all full-power stations in Hawaii turn off their analog signals. Stations there decided to go early to protect the breeding habitats of the endangered dark-rumped petrel near existing analog broadcast towers.

Meredith Attwell Baker, Assistant Commerce Secretary for Communications and Information and Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), did not support the legislation in October when asked about it on a conference call with reporters. She later changed her mind.

“My concern was a short period there would turn into a long period. We want to make sure the transition happens and it happens on Feb. 17 and that date doesn’t get extended to Aug. 17,” she said.