Ferree Plan’s Warm Welcome

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Before 2009, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission want to seamlessly transition 300 million television sets from analog to digital programming.

Last Wednesday, before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, industry leaders testified on how to minimize consumer disruption, whether expediting the transition is best and what to do about low-income consumers who cannot afford the necessary high-definition televisions that receive digital signals.

CABLE SUBS COUNT

One point of contention was the FCC Media Bureau’s proposed plan to count cable subscribers when calculating the 85% digital-penetration mark that will trigger the analog spectrum giveback.

That plan means many markets will reach that target by 2007, and the rest of the markets could follow two years later.

By law, broadcasters are required to be ready for the transition by 2007 or when 85% of American homes are equipped to receive digital broadcasts, whichever comes later.

Subcommittee members were mostly enthusiastic toward the FCC’s approach. But it has not been so highly received by broadcasters, who cite concerns about returning analog channels to the government before HDTVs have had a chance to flood the market.

“This proposal brings a lot to the table and I commend the Media Bureau for it,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the subcommittee’s chairman. Upton said concerns still remain, such as ensuring a smooth transition and protecting low-income people who can’t afford a new TV or converter.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the full House Commerce Committee, said he’s confident market sway coupled with “the end of analog” will drive consumers to purchase digital televisions.

The 1997 law requiring the return of the analog spectrum to the government for other uses “is not about promoting high-definition television directly, but about reclaiming the analog spectrum as soon as possible while minimizing the number of consumers who must take additional steps after the transition to continue watching television,” Barton said.

What would happen to the less than 15% who will not have access to digital broadcasting remains unknown.

Edward Fritts, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, said there would be millions of Americans left with blank TV screens and millions more with useless second TV sets when analog television broadcasting turned to digital format. “This was never the public policy objective of Congress,” Fritts testified.

MINIMAL FUSS WANTED

W. Kenneth Ferree, chief of the Media Bureau, has spearheaded the transition and said his goal is to minimize disruption.

“Whenever the transition ends, consumers who rely on over-the-air television and do not yet have a DTV receiver will be faced with a choice: purchase a digital TV set, purchase a digital-to-analog converter, or subscribe to a multichannel video provider such as a cable or satellite operator,” Ferree said. “Our goal is to minimize the number of consumers forced to make that choice.”

He also wants to make digital-to-analog equipment affordable. If more than 1 million converters were produced, they could be offered to consumers for as little as $100 each, and could decrease to $50 by 2009, Ferree told the committee.

Although the Media Bureau has formulated the framework for the DTV transition, no formal recommendation has yet been made to the full FCC.

Robert Sachs, CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, also testified, saying the FCC shouldn’t require cable operators to carry all of a broadcaster’s multicast signals as part of the digital transition.

Another subcommittee hearing is expected next month to discuss last August’s transition in Berlin that met few snags.

States News Service

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