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Guest Commentary – To Congress, FCC: Wake Up

May 26, 2003  •  Post A Comment

We are about to allow the elimination of one of the most valuable assets we have for reaching out to our citizens in times of emergency. The free over-the-air television service that we all take for granted as always being there for us is about to be eliminated. The current plan is to turn off this valuable system and replace it with a digital transmission service as soon as three years from now. In its quest to recover valuable spectrum Congress has mandated and the FCC has established a turn-off date for our current system of free over-the-air television in 2006. While this seems premature, at best, there is a much greater problem.
The current implementation of the digital system simply does not replicate the coverage or the ease of reception we take for granted today with analog television. The future digital system requires a rotating outdoor antenna of some sophistication to receive the signal even if the signal is strong. There is no solution in place today for most people to receive the over-the-air digital service if they cannot erect an outdoor antenna. FCC engineers have even stated that the new digital service is not intended for anything other than an outdoor antenna. Others such as the Consumer Electronics Association are suing the FCC to eliminate a mandate to include circuits in new TV sets that would address the reception of an off-of-the-air signal simply on the basis of added cost.
The horrific images coming from the Midwest after the recent rash of tornadoes must serve as a wake-up call to those who have the responsibility of serving the public interest. We must have the ability to reach a wide audience that is deprived of a cable or satellite service when disaster strikes. If we continue to press on with digital conversion without first solving the reception problem, there will come a time when tens of thousands of citizens will be unable to get the critical information in graphic form that is so necessary for their survival. The Midwest experience is a prime example of how important it is to be able to receive the TV signal using the simplest form of antenna and a battery-powered receiver.
During Hurricane Andrew several Miami TV stations managed to remain on the air and many people were able to gain comfort as well as save themselves because of the information transmitted continuously during and after the storm. It took weeks to restore the cable infrastructure. Satellite dishes were blown away at the first strong gusts of wind.
Given the present atmosphere of terror, we must not permit the loss of a mass communications system that has served us so well in times of public need for more than half a century.
Surely Congress did not intend to cripple the public safety and homeland security agencies by taking away the most powerful means of communicating to a wide audience. But that is exactly what is about to happen if we do not recognize the failure of the digital service to be easily received using simple antennas. The problem of simple indoor reception needs to be addressed now, and if it cannot be conclusively demonstrated that the digital system will meet that criteria, the system must be changed before it is too late. If the FCC cannot rise to this challenge, then Congress must act and act now. Time is very short.
Nat Ostroff is VP of new technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group.