FCC DTV Plan on 2005 Front Burner

Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell plans early next year to revive his effort to end the digital-TV transition by 2009.

Powell had hoped to bring the issue to a vote in November or December, but that got sidetracked due to the need to write new local-phone-competition rules within a few weeks.

"Once we get [the phone rules] passed, DTV moves to the front burner,” a senior FCC source said Tuesday.

Last week, Powell indicated to reporters that he was not concerned that a digital-TV vote would be delayed.

“Where did I say exactly when we were going to do that? We’ve been playing with this for a long time,” he said. “I tend to put these things in my quiver and I reach back and pull it out when we think it’s right.”

The FCC plan endorsed by Powell would end analog-TV broadcasting Dec. 31, 2008, forcing broadcasters to return 108 megahertz of prime spectrum for reallocation to public-safety groups and wireless-broadband providers through an auction.

The plan has been controversial with broadcasters, which oppose counting cable households as having converted to digital if they receive digital-TV signals in downconverted-analog format.

The FCC plan gave digital-TV stations the right to elect cable carriage in digital or analog after 2008, but TV stations argued that they would be forced to choose analog because a substantial portion of viewers wouldn't have digital receivers.

Broadcasters also feared that cable subscribers who invested in digital-TV sets would not have guaranteed receipt of broadcasters’ digital signals under the FCC plan.

As an alternative, the National Association of Broadcasters said the FCC should force cable to transmit digital-TV signals to homes to serve subscribers with digital-TV sets. Cable would ensure continued viewing in analog-only homes by providing set-tops or downconverted analog pictures, the NAB said.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association countered that cable operators should retain the right to convert digital signals to analog at the headend in order to avoid forcing set-tops on reluctant subscribers. The FCC plan did not require cable to furnish set-tops.

The NCTA said cable should continue to have the downconversion right until 85% of homes had digital receivers.

Powell indicated that he was open to modifications to the plan but not to proposals that would abandon the idea of a firm transition deadline.

“I like the plan, but I’ve never been opposed to other ideas,” he said. “I’m not very married to a particular approach. What I am fairly married to is that I would love to get this country to a hard deadline.”