Powell Drops DTV-Transition Plan

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Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell expects to leave the agency next month before finishing work on a plan to end TV stations' conversion to digital-only transmission by Dec. 31, 2008.

“I wish I would, but regrettably, it’s not going to be me to do it. I’m not going to do it,” Powell told reporters Thursday after the agency’s public meeting.

Powell -- who joined the FCC in 1997 and became chairman in 2001 -- announced in January that he would leave the agency in March.

The plan Powell help to shape called for ending the digital-TV transition Dec. 31, 2008, and required the vast majority of TV stations to surrender their analog licenses at that time.

Under current law, the transition is to end either Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85% of TV households in a market have digital-TV-reception equipment. Because the 85% test was viewed as prolonging the transition more than necessary, Powell came up with a new method for calculating 85% penetration.

Under his plan, cable households that received digital-TV signals in downconverted analog format would count toward the 85% threshold, as would satellite subscribers receiving local TV packages.

Cable operators were expected to downconvert digital-TV signals at the headend or to provide set-tops to ensure that subscribers with analog equipment would not lose access to local broadcasters.

The plan was controversial because broadcasters wanted authority to force cable to deliver their digital-TV signals to the home, which would require cable subscribers to obtain set-top boxes or digital-TV sets.

The National Association of Broadcasters argued that downconversion at the headend would dissuade consumers from buying digital-TV sets and annoy consumers who had purchased sets but were receiving local digital-TV signals in analog format.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association argued that cable systems should have the option of headend downconversion or set-top deployment. A policy that required reliance only on set-tops would cost cable consumers $28 billion, the NCTA said.

Congress is expected to consider digital-TV-transition legislation this year. House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) supports ending the transition Dec. 31, 2006, two years earlier than the deadline in Powell’s plan.

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