Tech Posse Backing DTV Hard Date

Taking on the powerful broadcast-TV lobby, a coalition of high-technology companies and like-minded trade groups Wednesday announced support for the effort in Congress to shut down analog TV no later than Dec. 31, 2006.

The coalition -- which includes Dell Inc., IBM Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Qualcomm Inc. -- has its eye on a swath of beachfront spectrum under TV-station control that can be used to provide next-generation broadband-wireless services over large geographic areas and in a more cost-effective fashion than possible in higher-frequency portions of the radio spectrum.

“It’s absolutely unique in its capabilities, and we’ve got to leverage this spectrum,” said Janice Obuchowski, executive director of the newly formed High Tech DTV Coalition.

The coalition tossed its support behind House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), the most vocal advocate on Capitol Hill for ending the digital-TV transition Dec. 31, 2006.

“Chairman Barton is the champion on this, and we are behind him,” said Peter Pitsch, Intel’s communications-policy director.

The coalition is well-funded and prepared to wage a battle royal with one of the most muscular lobbying groups in Washington, D.C.: the National Association of Broadcasters.

“We are deadly earnest about this issue. We have a significant budget, and we are going to do what it takes to win on this issue because it matters a lot,” Pitsch said.

Barton, who has not introduced a bill, is struggling to gain the support of key committee Democrats, who fear that consumers won’t be ready for all-digital broadcasting in the short space of 20 months.

The 17-member coalition’s hopes for seeing rapid exploitation of the 700-megahertz band depend on TV stations turning off their analog transmitters once and for all in the near future.

“We are talking about spectrum that is immensely underutilized,” said Rhett Dawson, president of the Information Technology Industry Council. “We have been kept from reaching significant levels of innovation because of powerful and entrenched interests.”

Dawson was no doubt referring to the NAB, which has repeatedly warned that the premature termination of analog TV would orphan 73 million analog-TV sets unless those sets get hooked up to pay TV services or digital-to-analog converter boxes.

Several House lawmakers have expressed concerned that a poorly managed digital-TV transition would fuel consumer outrage so strong that it would threaten their political careers.

In a letter Wednesday to Barton, NAB president Edward Fritts argued that the “corporate financial interests of a handful of technology companies should not trump the needs of American television viewers.”

Alluding to the political risks involved, Fritts added that the elderly, Hispanic households and low-income consumers constitute a large segment of viewers who rely exclusively on free, over-the-air broadcasting.

“The harm to these consumers -- a disproportionate number of whom come from poor and minority households -- must be considered against the purely parochial interests of high-tech companies hoping to profit from new uses of this spectrum,” Fritts said.

The federal government wants to reclaim analog-TV spectrum for allocation to fire, police and emergency teams for interference-free communications at crisis locations -- a policy goal made more urgent by communications breakdowns at the World Trade Center following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But in the letter to Barton, Fritts said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security concluded last September that public-safety-interoperability problems had been resolved in 10 major U.S. cities considered likely terrorist targets.

Obuchowski called it a “national disgrace” that the spectrum needs of first responders have not been met, especially with Americans facing ongoing terrorist threats.

In addition to setting a firm digital-TV deadline, Barton’s plan would include subsidies to keep the TV sets of low-income consumers running. Barton has expressed support for using spectrum-auction revenue to fund the subsidy program.

Aloha Partners LP, a High Tech DTV Coalition member, released an analysis Wednesday that claimed that auctioning 60 MHz of the broadcast spectrum “could generate between $20 billion and $30 billion for the U.S. Treasury.”

In February, the Government Accountability Office estimated that a converter-box program would cost $460 million-$10.6 billion, depending on box costs and the number of boxes actually funded by the government.

The coalition is planning to address the set-top and subsidy issues at some point in the debate.

“A country that put a man on the moon and that’s now looking at Mars should have no problem bringing converter boxes to 15% of its population,” Obuchowski said.

For now, the coalition is focusing its energy on passing a hard date for ending the transition.

“Nothing focuses the mind like a hangman’s noose, and a date certain, we believe, can bring that kind of focus to this issue,” Dawson said.