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DTV Group Pushes Dishes on Hill

The Digital Transition Coalition, which formed last week to advance the rollout of digital and HDTV, wasted no time in petitioning Congress to let satellite companies import distant digital signals into local markets.

The coalition, which includes Satellite broadcaster Charlie Ergen of EchoStar, wrote a letter to members of Congress Tuesday asking them to modify the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act (currently being re-authorized) to allow companies like Ergen's to import such signals to markets where broadcasters aren't providing them. The bill is scheduled to be marked up Wednesday in the House Telecommunications Subcommittee.

Granting such digital importation, they argue, would prevent the DTV transition from "languishing" and would "immediately benefit consumers who currently are unable to receive existing network DTV programming in their market because the local broadcasters are not yet providing a digital signal."

The coalition doesn't have much nice to say about terrestrial broadcasters, accusing the majority of them (61%, or about 1,000) of abdicating their digital responsibilities by either not having met the build-out deadline or delivering a digital signal to only a fraction of their viewing area.

"They are dodging their responsibilities to the American public using a loophole that allows them to keep the spectrum beyond 2006 if fewer than 85% of households in a given market do not have DTV sets or tuners capable of receiving the digital signal," the letter reads. "This Catch-22 arrangement essentially encourages broadcasters to delay the digital conversion.

Calling the letter "wildly inaccurate and filled with gross distortions," NAB SVP John Orlando circulated his own letter to the members Tuesday.

One of those distortions, he said, was the suggestion that the majority of broadcasters are serving only a fraction of their markets with digital. In fact, Orlando countered, "92% of television households that receive an over-the-air analog signal can also receive an over-the-air digital signal." NAB also points out that the FCC itself is standing in the way of some digital power-ups, having yet to authorize the DTV conversion of translators, which stations "in much of the West," use to carry their signal to the outer edges of their DMAs, said Orlando.

The coalition also argues that the sooner the analog spectrum is reclaimed the sooner the treasury can benefit from its resale and first-reponders can benefit from its use in emergency communications.

The coalition backs a plan, proposed by the Satellite Broadcast & Communications Association, that would allow satellite companies to import distant digital signals to subscribers who can't recieve a local digital signal, but would require the companies to swtich to the local DTV signal when it became available. NAB urged the legislators to reject the plan.

The coalition is an amalgam of satellite interests, anti-tax groups and other advocacy groups. The letter is signed by, among others, Ergen; Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform; Andrew Jay Schwartzman, Media Access Project; Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge; and Karen Kerrigan, Small Business Survival Committee.