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Stearns Yearns for DTV-Transition Test Market

Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), the relatively new ranking member on the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, said he favors a test market for the digital-TV transition.

Stearns told an interviewer for a segment airing as part of C-SPAN's The Communicators series that he thought the idea -- long pushed by Democratic Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps and currently being floated by FCC chairman Kevin Martin -- made sense.

"Whenever industry starts a new idea, whether a restaurant, hotel, or marketing a new product, they do a test-market first to see if there is any problem," he said. "I think chairman Martin is wise to set up a demonstration and roll it out in a transitional period. You can take all of the glitches and stop them so that when you go across the United States, you don't have those glitches."

Martin proposed a market test, or other kind of field testing, but said the FCC does not have the power to mandate such testing.

Stearns said getting the DTV transition right was his chief priority for the subcommittee. Asked if he had heard from any of his elderly Florida residents concerned about the transition, he said he had. While he added that those in senior communities mostly have cable and wouldn't have trouble, he was concerned about the more rural residents in farming communities. He said that was why he talked about the coupon program in town meetings.

Stearns said he thought the National Telecommunications and Information Administration was doing a good job at handling the DTV-to-analog converter-box-coupon program. "I have had town meetings," he added, "and the question I ask, 'Do all of you know that your analog TV will be shut off in 2009, Feb. 17?’ they all know."

And somewhat surprisingly, he suggested that everybody already had their coupons, which the NTIA just started sending out in mid-February. "And I say, 'How many people have coupons?' They all raise their hands," he added.

Stearns said his background as an electrical engineer who has dealt with communications satellites and who has dealt with Internet-privacy and data-security issues while in Congress gave him "a lot of experience in the telecommunications industry" and made him "uniquely suited to provide some leadership" on the subcommittee.

That said, he proceeded to suggest a doomsday scenario for analog TV that doesn't quite jibe with the transition as advertised. "As you know, on Feb. 17, 2009, all of the analog televisions in America will go dead and that spectrum will be sold off for third-generation wireless."

Actually, the TVs will still receive low-power and translator stations broadcasting in analog -- there are thousands of those -- and only a portion of the spectrum will be sold, with DTV broadcasters occupying the rest.

Stearns eventually talked about the low-power issue during the interview.

The Community Broadcasters Association has been complaining lately that it is being left out of the DTV-education message about analog being turned off in February 2009.