Washington— A Federal Communications Commission plan to complete broadcast television’s transition to digital-only transmission by 2009 is finished at the staff level, but when the five commissioners will vote on it is less clear, Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree said last Thursday.
“We’ve done all the work we need to do at this point,” Ferree told reporters. “I am not going to comment on who’s going to vote what, when.”
The FCC plan has triggered a lobbying battle between broadcasting and cable in a dispute that has likely postponed action at the commission, as each side tried modify the plan to its liking.
The National Association of Broadcasters is opposed to the plan, saying it threatens over-the-air reception of local TV stations in millions of homes that do not subscribe to cable or satellite.
Today, the U.S. has 73 million analog sets not connected to a pay TV service, NAB has told the FCC, adding that the attachment of a $300 digital box to each non-pay TV unit would cost consumers about $22 billion today.
The cable industry, led by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, insists that the plan should give cable operators the right to downgrade TV signals from digital to analog at the headend to ensure millions of subscribers do not have to acquire digital set-tops to continue using analog TV sets.
Ferree and his staff developed the plan over the last 10 months in an effort to reclaim on a date certain about 108 MHz of spectrum TV stations will no longer need, due to more efficient use of spectrum through digital transmission.
Congress and the FCC want to allocate some returned spectrum to public-safety groups for smooth communications in a crisis and auction the rest to wireless broadband providers. Ferree’s plan, which would end the transition on Dec. 31, 2008, would permit DTV stations to demand cable carriage of every programming service they transmit.
Digital technology today allows stations to beam five or six signals, compared to analog transmission that allows just one service. “Multicasting … was part of our original plan, so we’ve done all the work on that,” Ferree said.
The cable industry is fighting a multicast mandate, arguing that federal law requires carriage of a station’s “primary video” or just one programming service. In 2001, the FCC interpreted “primary” to mean one service.
NAB claims that a multicasting carriage mandate would spur stations to expand their menu of local programming, including additional political coverage.
The cable industry maintains that TV stations would air infomercials and other low-value programming, eating up channel capacity that could be allocated to cable networks that do not have an FCC license to serve TV viewers.
When the FCC members take up the DTV transition plan, they might consider the so-called multicasting issue as part of it, or give it separate consideration later.
“That could either be part of an overall transition plan or it could be a stand-alone item,” Ferree said.
Action on the multicasting issue is a decision for FCC chairman Michael Powell. “You have to talk to my boss about that one,” Ferree said.
Last month, Congress passed a non-binding resolution calling for an end to the transition no later than Dec. 31, 2006, two years earlier than the deadline in the FCC plan.
In 1996, Congress set Dec. 31, 2006 as the deadline. But that date is considered soft because stations may, by law, continue to provide analog service beyond 2006 if less than 85% of local TV households have digital reception equipment. Because the FCC plan would count cable subscribers receiving digital signals downconverted to analog toward the 85% penetration test, Ferree expects that most markets would finish the transition by 2009.
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