A Consumer's Guide to HDTV and the Transition to Digital Television

DTV Primer

Chris Llana, Editor


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House Committee Debates Draft DTV Transition Bill

May 29, 2005

On May 26, Joe Barton's (R-Texas) Energy and Commerce Committee held hearings on an informal staff draft of the Digital Television Transition Act of 2005. The biggest news about this was the proposed December 31, 2008, cut-off for analog broadcasts, two years later than the date set in the 1996 Communications Act, and two years later than what Barton has been pushing for.

While there was universal agreement on the need for a "hard" cut-off date for analog broadcasts and general agreement on the end-2008 date, there was a lot of fervent discussion on the need for coverter-box subsidies for people who still depended on analog TV sets at the end of the transition. The draft bill did not address subsidies.

Those favoring subsidies (partial reimbursement for digital-to-analog converter boxes for everyone, or subsidies only for lower-income households, or the free distribution of set-top-boxes) saw the transition as the government taking away consumers' access to television, rather than giving consumers a greatly enhanced television experience (high-definition and widescreen, with multichannel audio).

Other Committee members saw a subsidy program as unnecessary and an administrative nightmare.

The cost of a converter box that would allow analog (NTSC) televisions to continue working after the transition was estimated to be about $50.

The spectrum (radio wave frequencies) that would be freed up when TV broadcasters stop transmitting on their analog channels will be auctioned off by the government. An estimated $10 to $28 billion would be brought in by that sale; Committee members favoring a subsidy argued that those funds could easily cover the costs with plenty left over to help lower the deficit.

Another concern expressed about the draft legislation was the need to authorize the FCC to require television receivers to recognize "broadcast flags." This technology would enable encryption protocols to counter the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted programming over the internet, while allowing copying for personal "fair" use (time-shifting, etc.).

FCC authority to do this was recently found lacking by the courts. Intellectual property right protection for producers of high-definition programming (including movie studios) is seen as vital to ensure that consumers will have access to the best programming presented at the best quality that TV technology permits.

The other most commonly expressed concern was that the legislation was being crafted as a budget measure rather than a communications policy law (focusing on the revenue to be realized by the government from the auction of spectrum freed up when dual analog/digital broadcasting ends). The legislation as proposed will be rolled into the budget authorization bill in September and would finally be enacted at the end of the year.

This would have the effect of further delaying certainty about the final transition deadline, something some segments of the industry did not seem unhappy about.

The hearing, which was webcast live, featured a line-up of eleven witnesses, mostly officials representing the industry associations most affected by the transition to digital television.

Other participants included the FCC, GAO, an emergency official from a Washington suburban county (lobbying for early access to spectrum that would be freed up when TV stops analog broadcasts), and someone from the ConsumerŐs Union (affiliated with Consumers Reports magazine, which until relatively recently had been advising its readers to keep buying analog sets; at the hearing, that rep testified that digital TV is a "burden" on consumers--I guess that's why so many people are buying them! Masochists!).

Industry witnesses represented the Consumer Electronics Association (TV makers), the National Association of Broadcasters, two cable industry associations (big and small providers), Telemundo (LA Hispanic TV station owner), the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition (Circuit City official speaking for), and Intel.

Much of the discussion involving the subsidy issue hinged on the number of analog TV sets expected to still be in use at the end of 2008, which will go dark without some sort of added converter (either bought by the consumer or supplied by cable/satellite service).

This of course will be influenced by how many new analog-only sets are purchased between now and the analog cut-off date. To that end, some Committee members spoke out for the need for consumer education (now lacking) so that consumers will stop buying the NTSC-only sets.

The FCC touted its web site, which seemed to be recognized as ineffective for educating the masses. Otherwise no other solutions were presented.

The retail industry rep said they would be happy to apply labels AFTER Congress had established a hard cut-off date (legislation not to become law until the end of this year). The Consumer Electronics Association rep said they would then need 180 days to get the labels produced and distributed on new TVs. That would put us out to the middle of 2006, which by coincidence is when this draft legislation calls for all televisions over 13" to have integral digital tuners (a good thing, but opposed by the CEA). CEA/CERC have long and effectively lobbied the FCC against labeling analog-only TV sets.

Delaying labeling until mid-2006 of course would make any labeling moot, since there would be no more analog-only televisions on the market by then. In the meantime, however, at least 20 million additional new analog-only TVs would have been purchased by unwary consumers, adding substantially to the call for compensatory subsidies and free converter boxes.

There's lots more, but it will keep. Specifics of the staff draft:

  • Require television broadcasters to cease transmitting programs in analog format by December 31, 2008.
  • Require the FCC to:
    • issue a Report & Order by December 31, 2006, on the final digital channel assignments for broadcasters, complete any reconsideration by July 31, 2007, and submit status reports to Congress every six months starting February 1, 2006 on the international coordination of the digital channel assignments with Canada and Mexico.
    • educate consumers on the hard deadline and the options they will have to continue using analog televisions after the digital television transition.
    • maintain the FCC's existing digital tuner-mandate deadlines for integrated television receivers that have 25-inch screens or larger, and to accelerate, to July 1, 2006, the deadline for televisions with 13- to 24-inch screens.
  • Require manufacturers to place labels on, and retailers to place signs adjacent to, analog-only televisions indicating that those televisions will need to be attached to a digital receiver, digital-to-analog converter box, or multichannel video service to continue receiving broadcast programming after December 31, 2008.
  • Require cable operators to carry the primary video signal of digital must-carry broadcasters in the format broadcast.
    • In addition to, but not in lieu of, such carriage, cable operators may convert a digital must-carry signal to analog anywhere between the head-end and the subscribers' premises so that the signal can be viewed on analog televisions. If cable operators do such conversion for any must-carry broadcaster in a market, they must do such conversion for all must-carry broadcasters in the market. The FCC may sunset the "carry-one, carry all" obligation beginning Dec. 31, 2013. The FCC is authorized to create comparable regulations regarding satellite providers.