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GAO Confronts DTV Conundrum

In a report containing many unsurprising observations and a handful of policy suggestions, the General Accounting Office, gave its take on the DTV transition.

Some of the items in the report are old news: The report identified DTV's "chicken-and-egg" problem of content vs. equipment, noted that consumer confusion still reigns and predicted that it was unlikely that the public would soon reach the 85 percent threshold of DTV tuner ownership required for return of the analog spectrum now used by broadcasters.

But the GAO's carefully couched recommendations should be pleasing to broadcasters.

Noting that 40 percent of the public and a significant number of retail electronics workers are ill-informed about DTV, the office recommended the FCC consider a DTV education program.

The office suggested requiring new TVs to be able to receive digital signals over cable. It also suggested a fixed date when cable's must-carry obligations switch from local broadcasters' analog signals to their digital signals.

In addition, the GAO identified several areas of law that will require clarification. For example, it is not clear exactly what will count toward the 85 percent ownership threshold. For instance, should a television that receives digital channels over cable or satellite count even if the cable system does not carry local broadcasters' digital signals? And how should the FCC define a "market" for purposes of the 85 percent test? The FCC has said it has not yet determined these answers, according to the report.

"To reach 85 percent penetration of DTV signals, a series of interrelated changes need to occur, many of which are largely driven by the market. These changes include the availability of more digital programming, increased carriage of digital signals by cable companies, and increased consumer purchases of DTV receivers or converter boxes," the GAO said. "Serious roadblocks still remain to achieving each of these changes."

The report was requested by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee.

The entire 57-page report and a one-page summary are available at the General Accounting Office's Web site,