DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor




October 22, 2005

There is breaking news on three fronts: the Senate, the House, and the FCC.

First, the FCC has published the agenda for their delayed October 28th meeting and it does not include any decision on mandated digital tuners in small TV sets. This could be explained by the newly released House DTV transition bill, which sets the digital tuner date for TVs 13" - 24" to March 1, 2007 (which is what the consumer electronics industry wants). The previous draft Barton/House bill set that date July 1, 2006, and the FCC's proposed rule said no later than December 31, 2006, so clearly the consumer electronics industry lobbying machine carried the battle to Congress, apparently effectively.

The next scheduled FCC open meeting is November 3.

Second, the Senate Commerce Committee (as previously reported) held a markup session on its DTV transition bill on October 20, which included an end-of-transition date of April 7, 2009. Yesterday (October 21) an audio-only record of that meeting became available on the Senate's web site (click here, that revealed some of the political dynamics involved.

The meeting began and Chairman Stevens announced that they had to finish up in ten minutes in order to attend a floor vote. The short Senate DTV transition bill was quite simply a revenue-raising bill and fundamentally had nothing to do with the transition to the new digital TV standard.

Stevens basically said they were required to come up with $4.8 billion for budget reconciliation and he didn't know of any other way to get it except for the auction of returned TV spectrum. Further, the Congressional Budget Office had declared that that auction, if held in 2009, would bring in $10 billion; if held earlier, the auction would bring in much less (although other Senators set commercial estimates of auction revenue closer to $20 billion).

The difference between the $4.8 billion and the $10 billion CBO estimate would be used for digital-to-analog converter boxes ($3 billion) and some for emergency service agencies' radios and some for other uses relating to the transition and to emergency preparedness.

And, as it turns out, some for generous subsidies for commercial air service into areas with low populations, particularly a goodly number of such areas in Alaska. And also the senior Senator Burns' Montana. It's called "essential air service" money.

Senator Kerry suggested that as long as they were opening up spending to areas outside of the DTV transition and emergency response radios, the Coast Guard badly needed money. Another Senator suggested the need for additional universal service funding (a communications program).

Stevens summarily quashed all distractions, saying they had to stay within the confines of the CBO $10 billion estimate. He would not entertain any contingency provisions in the event the spectrum auction brought in revenues closer to the commercial $20 billion estimates.

He did note at that point that some Committee members had put holds on Committee bills on the floor of the Senate and if they did not remove those holds, he would block any committee action on those Senators' proposed bills. Stevens said that wasn't a "threat", it was a "promise." (A real tyrant!)

He similarly bullied and stomped on Senator McCain's amendment to the transition bill that would move the end-of-transition date to April 7, 2007. McCain's plea that "lives were more important than money" in support of the argument for getting spectrum to first responders sooner fell on deaf ears.

Certainly there were others in McCain's camp.

The Senator from Florida suggested a compromise between 2009 and 2007, to wit, April 7, 2008 (sounded good to me). Stevens dismissed it out of hand.

Senator Rockefeller complained that the bill emerged only in the last day-and-a-half, saying more discussion was needed. Nope.

End of story.

Third, on the other side of Congress, Representative Barton's House Energy and Commerce Committee just released their digital TV transition bill. Compared to the Senate version, well . . . it's night and day. Notwithstanding the consumer electronics industry's smelly hand smudges all over the paper, the House bill is fully developed, logical, and well-written. (Kudos to the Committee staff!)

It's such a relief to finally see a bill in print!

Barton has scheduled two days to process the bill out of committee: Tuesday, October 25th, there will be an open markup session for the purpose of allowing committee members to make their opening statements; on Wednesday the Committee wil reconvene to consider Title I, the Digital Television Transition Act of 2005.

The webcast is pending and you can also link from here to download a copy of the bill.

The basic relevant provisions are as follows:

The end-of-transition date remains December 31, 2008 (from earlier staff draft).

The digital-to-analog converter box program would be funded at $990 million, up to $160 million of which could be used for administrative costs. The program would distribute coupons (worth $40) toward the purchase of a D/A converter box. No more than two coupons per household, only one of which could be used per box (no two coupons for one box). You would get coupon request forms from government buildings (inc. post offices) and possibly commercial business (eg. electronics stores). You could also request via internet. Coupons would be available from January 1, 2008, to January 31, 2009, and would have to be redeemed by March 31, 2009.

The bill would also require warning labels on analog-only TVs "in a conspicuous place," that ship in interstate commerce starting 180 days after the bill is enacted. A sign placed in the vicinity of analog-only TVs would be required beginning 45 days after bill enactment. These would say:

"This television has only an analog broadcast tuner. After December 31, 2008, television broadcasters will broadcast only in digital format. You will then need to connect this television to a digital-to-analog converter box or cable or satellite service if you wish to receiver broadcast programming. The device, if any, that a cable or satellite subscriber will need to connect to an analog television will depend on the cable or satellite service provider. The television should continue to work as before, however, with devices such as VCRs, digital video recorders, DVD players, and video game systems. For more information, call the Feeral Communications Commission at 1-888-225-5322 (TTY: 1-888-835-5322) or visit the Commission's web site at:"

The bill also mandates a "public outreach" program managed by the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Adminstration."

TV broadcasters will be required to air at least two public service announcements per day all during 2008, one between 8 and 9 a.m. and another between 8 and 9 p.m.

Cable and satellite providers will have to include educational notices with their billing statements.

The bill would require digital tuners in 13" to 24" TV sets by March 1, 2007 (the date favored by the industry). All larger TV sets will have integrated digital tuners by July 1, 2006.

Other provisions lay out details relating to cable and satellite carriage and downconversion of broadcasters' digital signals.

Barton's committee will act on this bill October 26. Reconciliation with the mess that is coming out of the Senate will hopefully be resolved by Thanksgiving.