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Priming the digital pump

Mar 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Broadcasters who think they can hang onto their analog spectrum well past 2006 may soon be in for a surprise.
That’s because House Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., is exploring legislation that tightens a critical deadline for the digital television transition, eliminating a giant loophole that lets broadcasters retain their analog frequencies beyond 2006.
Under existing law, broadcasters must return their spectrum in 2006 unless 85 percent of viewers in a market do not have access to digital signals.
Many broadcasters expect to exploit the loophole, given that few viewers have shelled out the thousands of dollars for DTV sets and that a bevy of technical issues are hampering the rollout.
Now, Rep. Tauzin is considering legislation to set a more firm deadline, possibly by lowering the 85 percent threshold, explained spokesman Ken Johnson.
“I think it is time for us to be concerned about this soft deadline, and I think we ought to at least begin to consider perhaps hardening that deadline,” Rep. Tauzin said at a March 15 hearing on impediments to the DTV transition.
If the loophole is tightened, he said, there must be assurances that DTV sets will be less expensive and that more DTV programming will be available.
The government can’t afford delays, because it wants to raise billions by auctioning the analog spectrum. If broadcasters hang onto those frequencies long past 2006, bidders will lose interest and be less willing to spend big bucks for the spectrum.
Lawmakers are also concerned DTV could be a flop-and their gift of an estimated $700 billion worth of digital spectrum to broadcasters could be squandered-if the 2006 deadline is not met and consumers remain comfortable with analog signals.
Echoing Rep. Tauzin, Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, said legislation or regulation may be needed to ensure a smooth transition.
“[These] are not the kind of issues that government decides best, and it would be better if private negotiations and agreements could be struck to mitigate the need for the government to intervene,” he said.
“I agree with Rep. Dingell. You may end up getting something that you really don’t like if Congress steps into it,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif.
Broadcasters acknowledged responsibility for some of the delays in converting to digital. But they insisted the transition is generally on track and said Congress should be focused on mandating digital must-carry, protecting over-the-air DTV signals from video pirates and ensuring that cable set-top boxes are compatible with DTV sets.
“Rumors of the demise of digital television are premature,” said CBS lobbyist Martin Franks.
Lowell “Bud” Paxson, chairman of Paxson Communications, reiterated the need for digital must-carry requirements that extend to multicast signals.
Ben Tucker, president of Fisher Broadcasting, testified on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters. He recommended, among other things, that equipment manufacturers add DTV tuners to new analog TV sets to help spur the transition. But manufacturers object, insisting that would dramatically raise set prices. Also opposed is Rep. Tauzin, who’s worried about higher set costs and the lack of digital programming.
Lawmakers appeared sympathetic to the concerns of public broadcasters, who are seeking must-carry rights for their multicast feeds, including educational and children’s programming channels.
The hearing was the first of several to be held by the subcommittee on why the DTV transition is stalled and what needs to be done to get it back on track.
Meanwhile, House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., was undecided on whether the 2006 deadline should be eased or strengthened. He expressed understanding for the complexity and costliness of the digital conversion but also said he wants to protect his constituents. Rep. Tauzin’s words rang louder because he oversees Rep. Upton and his subcommittee.
The warnings from Rep. Tauzin and Rep. Dingell follow threats two weeks ago by members of the Senate Commerce Committee to impose financial penalties on broadcasters that fail to return their analog spectrum to the government on time.
Even President Bush has proposed annual spectrum fees for broadcasters until they give back their analog frequencies, an idea Rep. Upton opposes.