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DTV Plan Ready, Says Ferree

Federal Communications Commission Media Bureau chief Ken Ferree said his staff has wrapped up its recommendation for speeding the transition to all-digital TV.
All he needs to present it to the five FCC commissioners for their review is the go-ahead from Chairman Michael Powell.
FCC sources and industry have said Powell hopes to present it to the commissioners Jan. 20, the deadline for telling them what proceedings will be on the agenda for February’s open meeting. “The plan is done,” he told reporters during a press conference Thursday. “Now it’s a decision for the chairman to make. We could present it in a matter of days.”

What Powell plans to do remains unclear. An FCC spokesman would not comment and Powell was not immediately available Thursday.

Ferree said the plan could include a recommendation on whether broadcasters would be entitled to cable carriage of the six or so channels they would be able to offer in digital, but it would be Powell’s decision to include that provision or request a vote on the measure separately.

The DTV plan, in the works for a year, would require broadcasters to go all-digital and return their old analog channels to the government by 2009, years sooner than they would otherwise be required. The plan works by measuring very liberally how many American are receiving digital signals from their local TV stations. The 1997 DTV law requires stations to return analog channels when 85% of viewers in their market are equipped to receive local DTV programming.

Under the measurement to be recommended by Ferree's bureau, nearly all cable customers would be counted toward the 85% level, even if they don’t own a DTV set or subscribe to a cable operator’s digital programming tier. That’s because the FCC would count any cable customer as “digitally served” if they are receiving a digital station’s signal after the cable operator has downconverted the programming to an analog format.

Employing the liberal measure of who’s receiving a digital signal would make it possible for most markets to reach the 85% penetration test almost immediately. If the FCC counted only viewers with DTV sets or digital cable tiers, reaching the 85% trigger could take a half-decade or more.

The FCC is eager to end the DTV switch and turn over reclaimed TV channels to local emergency departments and auction others to wireless companies.