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It's High Time to Make DTV Work

You might not have noticed that summer's over. Congress is back in session, and it's time to knuckle down and complete the DTV transition.

To figure out how, our elected legislators hold hearings. Folks representing most commercial interests are invited to be "witnesses." They spout off. They are questioned. They are ignored. Methinks legislators must consider them more witless than witness, and the feeling's probably mutual.

So I figure it's my patriotic duty to provide a road map to the end of the transition. There are a bazillion places to start, but I'm a stickler for safety first, last, and in between, so I'll begin there.

Try as I might, I can't come up with any reason why 700 MHz is the ideal frequency for public-safety radios. Yes, it's probably better than 18 GHz, but why is it better than 200 to 400 MHz, where there ain't any TV stations to displace--TV stations that deliver critical public safety info when there are hurricanes, floods, tornados, and other stuff like that there?

Folks pushing the public safety reason to shut down analog TV talk about 9/11, but if I read the reports correctly, the communications failures on that day weren't attributed to frequency use. But I ain't the world's greatest expert on such matters, so I'll grant that some team of mad scientists working in a fake ivory tower somewhere has decided that TV channels 63, 64, 68, and 69 are the most ideal for public-safety communications.

Okay. Public safety radio has been sharing TV spectrum for a long time. Why can't they continue to do so? There are somewhere around 50 analog TV allocations on those four channels out of around 1,750 analog TV stations nationwide. So, for public safety, I favor the Senate version of last year's Intelligence Reform (good name) bill. If public safety officials in a market request that those channels be vacated in their market, so be it. If they don't, that's okay, too. Maybe the Lowry, S.D. fire department will decide it doesn't really need TV Channel 68.

I've got a plan for the few stations that might be displaced, too. There are a bunch more allocations than stations on air. So we squeeze any stations forced off the air by public safety into those, and the government pays the costs of new transmitters, antennas, installation, and promotion. It'll cost a heck of a lot less than the billions they were proposing for DTV "adapters" for consumers.

Next, broadcasters want cable and satellite carriage of full multicasts. Cable and satellite say they ain't got the bandwidth. Satellite, at least until they get all the spot beams working, just might be right. But for both cable and satellite, there ain't any bandwidth difference between a station carrying HD and one multicasting. So, if they're willing to carry the HD, they've got enough bandwidth for the multicasting.

Methinks the real issue is competition. If a CBS station multicasts MTV, Nickelodeon, and Showtime and an ABC station multicasts ESPN programming, well then cable and satellite might lose some business. So here's my plan.

A cable or satellite op able to carry a station's HD will have to carry, under the same must-carry/retransmission consent rules that currently apply to analog stations, any free-to-view multicasts that do not duplicate other cable/satellite programming being carried at the time of the agreement. For pay-to-view programming, broadcasters will have to pay a percentage of gross receipts from the payments. For duplicated cable/satellite programming, they've got to negotiate carriage, and there's no cap on what cable/satellite ops get to charge.

As for analog/digital duplicate carriage, that won't apply to satellite at all (which is already all-digital). For cable ops, if they're carrying any channels both analog and digital, then they have to do the same for broadcasts, but they don't need to carry any multicasts in analog form (on account of that, for sure, eats up bandwidth).


That gets me to receivers. If it were up to me, I wouldn't have had any "tuner mandate," but there's no use crying about milk already squirted from a nose, so, for sets 36 inches and up, let's keep it.

But, to make things meaningful, let's add some receiver standards. If we're going to have adjacent-channel DTV stations in a single market, let's have receivers that can select one from another. I nominate Charlie Rhodes for receiver-standards czar.

Below 36 inches, though, let's dump the mandate. A list I check sometimes shows 25-inch TVs advertised for under $100, and I've already ranted here about 5-inch sets going for $15 including shipping. Methinks there are enough TVs 36 inches and up sold to drive development of receiver circuits. Let's not double the price of TVs for unsuspecting consumers.

Speaking of unsuspecting consumers, part of my plan, if it wasn't obvious from the beginning, is eliminating any "hard" date for shutting off analog TV. There's a good reason folks use that word "hard" to describe it. But someday those stations will be shut down, and most consumers ain't got a clue it's going to happen.

So, as emperor of the DTV transition, I hereby ordain a label on every single device with an analog TV tuner, but no digital reception, starting six months from now, explaining to consumers that there will come a day when that tuner will cease to function and an "adapter" will be needed at extra cost.

I ain't done. It will be illegal for anyone to call a TV "digital" that doesn't have any more digital circuitry in it than a nondigital TV. And it will also be illegal to call a TV "HDTV" if its screen doesn't have a 16:9 aspect ratio. Those edicts will also become effective in six months on account of I'm a benevolent despot.

As for the wireless industry, which wants the rest of 700 MHz vacated, I urge them to follow in Qualcomm's footsteps and pay analog broadcasters to go off the air. Okay? Is everybody happy?