12.13.2004 11:00 AM
FCC’s Powell to delay digital TV vote

FCC Chairman Michael Powell expects to postpone until early next year a vote on his plan to convert the U.S. television system to digital technology by January 2009, Bloomberg News reported.

Local television stations and broadcasters such as Walt Disney Co.’s ABC network have lobbied against the plan, the report said, stating that consumers aren’t prepared to switch to digital TV sets. Police and fire-safety groups have pushed the transition because it would free current airwaves for emergency services.

A delay by Powell may lead Congress to pre-empt the FCC on the issue, increasing the likelihood that the transition to digital TV will be pushed back even further, Precursor Group analyst Rudy Baca told Bloomberg News.

Baca, a former senior aide to then-FCC Chairman James Quello, said the Powell plan was an interesting intellectual exercise that won’t be voted on anytime soon. Powell had planned to hold a vote on the issue this week, but now expects to submit it to an agency vote by March, Jonathan Cody, a top Powell aide, told Bloomberg.

Current law calls for broadcasters to return the spectrum once 85 percent of U.S. households receive digital signals, or the year 2006, whichever comes later. Only about 2 percent of U.S. households have digital equipment to receive the signals, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Local TV stations represented by the NAB and networks such as ABC and General Electric Co.’s NBC have lobbied against Powell’s plan.

Preston Padden, Disney’s executive vice president, told Bloomberg that the company fears that the nation’s consumers have not been prepared to have the analog TV transmitters shut off. He said too many analog-only TVs, including tens of millions purchased by consumers this year alone, would be rendered useless.

About 15 percent of U.S. households don’t pay for cable or satellite TV and receive only broadcast channels over the air. Their TV sets would become obsolete under Powell’s plan.

Powell would let networks require cable and satellite TV services to convert digital signals into analog. With this conversion, subscribers who want to keep using their current analog TV sets would be able to see analog-quality pictures.

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