A plan intended to accelerate the digital-TV transition is expected to encounter stiff resistance from commercial-TV stations that would need to surrender rights to valuable analog airwaves, a Federal Communications Commission official said Wednesday.
"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."
At one point, Ferree described broadcasters as having a "death grip" on airwaves that the agency wants to redeploy, giving a chunk to public-safety groups 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 National Association of Broadcasters, an intended target of Ferree's barbs, declined comment on his suggestion that TV stations wanted to hang on to spectrum indefinitely.
"That is a comment so utterly ridiculous that it does not deserve a response," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.
Ferree's plan contains elements designed to require as many TV stations as possible to return their analog spectrum to the federal government in early 2009, many years sooner than broadcasters were anticipating.
Consistent with current law, broadcasters would lose their right to analog spectrum in any market where 85% of TV households have digital-TV sets or converter boxes that allow viewing of over-the-air digital-TV signals.
Ferree's plan, for the first time, would put the FCC on record in terms of determining when 85% penetration had been met.
Beginning in the fall of 2008, TV stations electing mandatory cable carriage would be eligible to seek carriage of only their digital signals. However, they could insist that cable distribute the digitals signal in analog -- also called downconversion.
TV households that received downconverted digital signals would count toward the 85% threshold. Using that standard would trigger the analog giveback in dozens of markets, Ferree said.
The plan presumes that TV stations that negotiate cable carriage of their digital signals would see to it that they did not lose access to homes that only had analog reception capability.
Broadcasters are opposed, saying that the plan would discourage the purchase of HDTV sets and frustrate, rather than accelerate, the digital-TV 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.
Ferree said the transition had international consequences for U.S. economic prowess, noting that Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom were racing ahead of the United States.
Berlin became the first major city to complete the transition last August.
"As a matter of global competitiveness, we have to ask ourselves: As a country, do we want to be left behind in that race?" he added.