Ferree, NAB Tangle Over DTV Transition


Kenneth Ferree of the Federal Communications Commission must think the alphabet has only 23 letters, because he keeps on forgetting about NAB.

Last week, Ferree tangled with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) over his idea to expedite the move to DTV, which involves the early giveback of analog spectrum and cable carriage terms that broadcasters consider profoundly troubling. Ferree, noted for his frankness in a city that crushes candor, singled out broadcasters for wanting to sit on spectrum rather than help solve a problem.

“They’d rather eat their children than give up this spectrum,” Kenneth Ferree, chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau, told reporters. “They will hold on to this spectrum to their dying day, if they can. I don’t blame them. I would too if I was a broadcaster.”

At one point, Ferree described broadcasters as having a “death grip” on the airwaves that the agency wants to redeploy, giving a chunk to public-safety groups for crisis communications and selling the rest at auction, which could yield the U.S. Treasury a considerable sum.

“We’re probably past the days of the $70 billion spectrum auction,” Ferree said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if it was in the multiple tens of billions of dollars.”

The NAB, the obvious target of Ferree’s jabs, declined comment on his “eat their children” crack. “That is a comment so utterly ridiculous that it does not deserve a response,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

Ferree’s plan is designed to wrap up as much of the DTV transition as possible by early 2009, a date NAB considers premature.

Getting there means allowing cable systems to carry digital-TV stations in analog. Cable subscribers that viewed downconverted TV signals would count toward the digital-penetration test that triggers the analog-spectrum giveback, Ferree said.

Current law says the analog spectrum goes back to the FCC when 85% of TV households in a market have DTV sets or converter boxes that make it possible to view over-the-air digital-TV signals.

By and large, the NAB wants the 85% test to mean that at least 85% of TV households have purchased at least one DTV set. Ferree’s plan also presumes that powerful TV stations have the clout to force cable to carry their signals in digital and analog.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association is not commenting on the Ferree plan because key details have been changed and need to be vetted with operators.

“Ken Ferree and the Media Bureau staff deserve a lot of credit for thinking creatively on how we transition from analog to digital spectrum,” NCTA president Robert Sachs said. “Rather than being criticized or ridiculed by some trade associations, I think they ought to be commended for taking risks for thinking outside the box and putting ideas out of for others to consider.”

The success of Ferree plan’s depends on some level of support from broadcasters. But the NAB isn’t furnishing it, claiming Ferree’s plan would discourage the purchase of HDTV sets and hinder the DTV transition.

“Put simply, this plan makes a mockery of 15 years of government-industry partnership in advancing the digital transition. It should be immediately rejected,” Wharton said.

The Ferree plan has a few loose ends. It does not state whether TV stations would have mandatory cable carriage of multiple digital services. Not does it address the needs off-air only consumers with analog set or any analog set not connected to cable or satellite.

Subsiding converters for 20 million analog sets would cost at least $1 billion, Ferree said.