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FCC’s Powell proposes hard date for DTV switchover

It appears that Congress is now having regrets about allowing NAB lobbyists to talk it into the extra wiggle room it granted for the DTV transition. Several industry reports last week stated that the FCC, now under pressure from lawmakers, is trying to come up with a plan to set a hard date for the return of analog spectrum.

Under the current law, the deadline for actual return of broadcast analog spectrum to the government comes when there’s an 85 percent penetration of digital TV reception to America’s homes. There have been estimates that this could take until about 2025 or longer, costing the taxpayers billions of dollars while broadcasters double dip in two sets of spectrum.

According to news reports attributed to government and industry sources, FCC chairman Michael Powell and Media Bureau chief Kenneth Ferree have been exploring several options with congressional staff members looking for a viable way to avoid the current loophole and set a hard deadline for the transition to end.

The example most cited by Powell and Ferree was the recent DTV transition in the city of Berlin. Last summer, the German capital became the first major city to shut down off-air analog TV and switch immediately to all-digital broadcasting. The transition has gone without major problems.

At the core of the plan is a new method for calculating when 85 percent of households in a market would be considered capable of receiving digital broadcast signals, a report said.

As the 85 percent threshold is interpreted today, a household is not considered digital-ready unless it has the means to decode digital signals, which usually means possession of a cable or DBS set-top box or a DTV set with an off-air tuner.

In a change, Powell and Ferree are floating the idea of requiring cable companies to carry digital TV signals in downconverted analog format. In theory, every cable home served in such a manner—and every DBS home that purchased a local TV signal package—would qualify as digital-ready homes for purposes of the 85 percent test.

Powell and Ferree are confident that the vast majority of the top 100 markets, which happen to include 85 percent of U.S. households, would either meet or come very close to meeting the threshold.

Once the broadcasters are forced to give back the analog spectrum, the wireless industry would have access to the spectrum, and the taxpayers would benefit from the huge fees for using it. The cable industry would no longer be threatened by dual must-carry mandates from the FCC, since there would be no more analog TV stations.

Broadcasters who have gotten wind of the idea are not too pleased, the report said.

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