12.06.2002 12:00 PM
GAO recommends hard deadline for DTV transition

The federal government's General Accounting Office (GAO) weighed in on prospects for a successful digital television transition last week with solutions that have heretofore been proven difficult to attain.

The GAO's list of jump-start solutions include digital must-carry, hard deadlines and mandated cable hardware - a laundry list that might require more political willpower than the TV industry has previously mustered.

The GAO report, commissioned by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), the ranking Democrat on the House telecommunications subcommittee, said current DTV policies, including the FCC's recent tuner mandate, may not be enough to complete the transition.

"An additional option would be to require digital cable-ready capability in addition to the over-the-air digital tuner," the report suggests. "Because more than two-thirds of households receive cable, mandating that televisions be digital cable-ready may prove a cost-effective policy option for hastening the DTV transition, particularly when paired with the existing over-the-air mandate. While the additional cost of the digital cable tuner is likely small, it is less clear what the incremental cost of the POD slot would be. In addition, outstanding cable compatibility issues would need to be resolved before a digital cable-ready mandate could be implemented."

Another policy option, the GAO suggested, is to set a date-certain when broadcast stations' right to invoke a must-carry status for their stations' signals would transfer from their analog signals to their digital signals. "This option could have the advantage of speeding up cable carriage of digital signals while avoiding problems inherent in requiring dual carriage. Pairing this date-certain switchover with a digital cable-ready mandate has the potential to be especially effective. The digital cable mandate would ensure that when the switchover did occur, a significant portion of households would both receive local digital broadcast signals and have the equipment in place to view those signals."

However, the GAO concluded, the switchover policy could have disadvantages as well, such as possible adverse effects on smaller stations. As such, this policy would need to be evaluated more closely.

The GAO said one of the most important goals for completing the DTV transition is the recapture of the broadcast spectrum that television stations will be returning. "There is significant economic value embodied in this spectrum, and it has been allocated for both public safety needs as well as for new commercial services. Delays in completing the DTV transition would compromise for some time the ability to fully use this spectrum. Understanding the relative time frames for the transition - that is, the time frame with and without certain policy changes-is key to understanding the implicit cost to society of allowing the transition to move at its current pace."

"Ultimately, decisions about implementing further legal or regulatory changes to speed the DTV transition require balancing the costs and burdens of those changes with the benefits of returning the broadcast spectrum in a timely fashion," the report said.

After the release of the report, Markey responded: "I believe that the GAO's recommendations with respect to mandating cable tuners, as well as the notion of a switch-over to digital from analog must-carry rights, merit particular attention," Markey said. "I will be crafting legislative proposals in the coming weeks that contain the policy suggestions advanced by the GAO, as well as other initiatives, for consideration by my subcommittee colleagues."

For more information visit www.gao.gov.

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