A Federal Communications Commission plan to complete broadcast television’s transition to digital-only transmission by 2009 is finished at the staff level, but when the five FCC members will vote on it is less clear, FCC Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree said Thursday.
“We’ve done all the work we need to do at this point,” Ferree told reporters at FCC headquarters. “I am not going to comment on who’s going to vote what, when.”
The FCC plan has triggered a lobbying battle between broadcasting and cable in a dispute that has likely postponed action at the FCC as each side tried to modify the plan to its liking.
The National Association of Broadcasters is opposed to the plan, saying that it threatens over-the-air reception of local TV stations in millions of homes that do not subscribe to cable or satellite.
Today, the United States has 73 million analog sets not connected to pay TV services, the NAB has told the FCC, adding that the attachment of $300 digital boxes to each non-pay-TV unit would cost consumers about $22 billion.
The cable industry, led by the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, is insisting that the plan gives cable operators the right to downgrade TV signals from digital to analog at the headend in order to ensure that millions of subscribers do not have to acquire digital set-tops to continue using their analog-TV sets.
Ferree and his staff developed the plan over the past 10 months in an effort to reclaim on a date certain about 108 megahertz of spectrum that TV stations will no longer need due to more efficient use of spectrum through digital transmission.
Congress and the FCC want to allocate some of the returned spectrum to public-safety groups for smooth communications in a crisis and to auction the rest to wireless-broadband providers for billions of dollars.
Ferree’s plan -- which would end the transition Dec. 31, 2008 -- would permit digital-TV stations to demand cable carriage of every programming service they transmit. Digital technology currently allows stations to beam five or six signals, compared with analog transmission, which allows just one service.
“Multicasting … was part of our original plan, so we’ve done all the work on that,” Ferree said.
The cable industry is fighting a multicast mandate, arguing that federal law requires carriage of a station’s “primary video,” or just one programming service. In 2001, the FCC interpreted “primary” to mean one service.
The NAB claimed that a multicasting-carriage mandate would spur stations to expand their menus of local programming, including additional political coverage.
The cable industry maintained that TV stations would air infomercials and other low-value programming, eating up channel capacity that could be allocated to cable networks that do not have FCC licenses to serve TV viewers.
When the FCC members take up the digital-TV-transition plan, they might consider the so-called multicasting issue as part of it or give it separate consideration later.
“That could either be part of an overall transition plan, or it could be a stand-alone item,” Ferree said.
Action on the multicasting issue is a decision for FCC chairman Michael Powell.
“You have to talk to my boss about that one,” Ferree said.
Last month, Congress passed a nonbinding resolution calling for an end to the transition no later than Dec. 31, 2006 -- two years earlier than the deadline in the FCC plan.