A Federal Communications Commission plan to force broadcasters to convert to digital signal distribution from the current analog system no later than Jan. 1, 2009, apparently was put on indefinite hold last week-and agency sources said it is now unclear when the controversial proposal will be ready for a vote.
The proposal, which has the support of FCC Chairman Michael Powell, was expected to come up for a vote by the end of this year. It would have set a firm deadline for a transition to digital that many observers believe could otherwise slide for a decade or more.
In remarks to reporters last week, Mr. Powell said the agency has been too focused on telephone industry issues recently to give the DTV transition plan the full attention it warrants. The chairman also appeared to distance himself somewhat from the proposal, which has come under heated attack from broadcasters.
“I’m not very married to a particular approach,” Mr. Powell said. “I would love this country to get a hard deadline.”
Industry sources said the FCC’s proposal lost steam after the Senate Commerce Committee voted 13-9 in September to kill legislation that would have forced broadcasters to meet the 2009 deadline. “If that had passed, the FCC would have had a green light,” one industry source said.
There was also growing concern by the industry and some FCC commissioners that a firm transition deadline could disenfranchise owners of the 73 million analog-only TV sets currently in consumer homes that aren’t connected to cable or satellite.
Broadcasters say owners of those sets could be required to pay up to $100 or more for digital-to-analog converters for those sets if they want to be able to continue receiving TV signals over the air. At $100 per set, the total price tag for the converters would be $7.3 billion. An effort in Congress to get the government to pick up some or all of that cost was defeated earlier this year.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, has been promoting the concept of requiring broadcasters to make the switch as early as 2006.
Another monkey wrench in the works is a recent proposal by the National Association of Broadcasters and other broadcast interests under which cable operators would ultimately be responsible for ensuring that analog subscribers have access to digital-to-analog converters. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association opposes the NAB proposal.
Some sources are arguing that it would behoove the FCC to hold off on its own plan to give the new Congress a crack at resolving the transition issue with legislation when it convenes next year. “Congress has signaled this is an issue for them,” said one industry source.