Policy

Digital Deadline Set: 2/17/09

2/03/2006 7:02 PM Eastern

Washington— Mark your calendars, America: Over-the-air analog TV is scheduled to die Feb. 17, 2009.

As a result of legislation passed by the House last Wednesday and sent to the White House, millions of analog TVs not connected to cable or satellite TV service will be useless after Feb. 17, 2009, unless owners acquire analog-to-digital converters for each one.

Stewart Wolpin, senior analyst at Points North Group, said that less than a quarter of all consumers knows that the digital transition is potentially fatal to their analog TVs.

“My biggest concern is that the American consumer does not yet know that their television may not work on Feb. 18, 2009,” Wolpin said.

SIMULCASTS START

Major cable operators are trying to make the transition a non-event for subscribers. Comcast Corp. and Time Warner Cable, for example, are starting to provide a digital simulcast of their analog services in an effort to allow subscribers to abandon their analog-TV sets on their own timetable.

Passage of the legislation sparked a debate between the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the National Association of Broadcasters over cable-carriage rights of certain digital signals after the transition.

NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz last week maintained that if a DTV station elects mandatory carriage from a cable system, the operator is required to deliver the broadcaster’s signal to subscribers in digital form.

The cable system, he added in an important caveat, also has the discretion to transmit the same digital signal in analog from the headend without the station’s permission.

Cable-industry lawyers believe this is the case because federal law does not prohibit it, Dietz said.

“We don’t agree with that. We don’t concede that at all,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

Cable systems, Wharton said, may not downconvert digital signals without permission. If cable wants to ensure that digital signals are viewable on subscribers’ analog TV sets, those operators can issue set-top boxes, he said.

The NAB has advocated dual must-carry — cable carriage in analog and digital — for many years. But the NAB’s idea of dual must-carry rights would apply to all stations that elect mandated carriage; the NCTA’s version would apply to only those digital television stations selected by cable systems after the 2009 transition.

Dietz suggested that the NAB’s stance against downconversion ran counter to TV stations’ interests. “It’s ironic that NAB is maintaining a viewpoint that will limit the reach of local must-carry broadcast signals after the digital transition occurs,” he said.

Because direct-broadcast satellite was all-digital from inception, the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline will be a nonevent for DBS subscribers who have all of their analog TVs hooked up to one of the major carriers, DirecTV Inc. or EchoStar Communications Corp.’s Dish Network.

That also assumes DBS customers are subscribing to a local TV signal package, an optional purchase.

EchoStar and DirecTV are concerned, at least in the early years, about the impact on bandwidth of having to carry the high-definition programming of must-carry digital stations. The new law did not address this concern.

Cable and DBS homes with analog TVs that rely on antennas will need digital-to-analog converters if they don’t want to hook up those sets to a pay-TV service.

The NAB estimates that cable and DBS homes have 28 million unconnected analog sets.

Last year, the Government Accountability Office estimated that about 20 million U.S. TV households rely exclusively on free, over-the-air broadcasting. The NAB said those 20 million homes have about 45 million analog-TV sets that are scheduled to go dark in 2009 under the new legislation.

$1.5B FOR SET-TOPS

To address a potential consumer backlash, Congress included up to $1.5 billion to subsidize digital-to-analog converter boxes. House Democrats are concerned that the $1.5 billion will not meet demand.

The House approved the bill, 216-214, late last Wednesday afternoon. Because the Senate passed the same bill just before Christmas, the measure was sent to the White House for President Bush’s signature.

Bush is expected to sign the DTV measure because it was included in a budget package intended to save about $40 billion over the next five fiscal years.

After the transition, Congress is hoping to collect at least $10 billion from the auction of recovered analog-TV spectrum. Some of the airwaves will be given to police and fire squads around the country for improved wireless communications. The blue-ribbon panel that examined the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks recommended new spectrum for first responders.

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