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FCC Bureau Chief Confirms DTV Conversion Pressure

By | October 11, 2004

      With such issues as the analog-to-digital TV transition at the forefront, it is a busy time for the Federal Communica-tions Commission (FCC). The challenge to get the United States digitally enabled will not be an easy one, but the FCC hopes it will happen by 2007. That projection seems optimistic in light of many local TV broadcasters that have been slow to convert from analog to digital technology thus far.

      The completion of the digital transition would bring a lot spectrum back into play for alternative uses. Ken Ferree, chief of the FCC’s Media Bureau, believes having this spectrum back will open up a number of new avenues. “Completing the transition would mean a tremendous boon in the amount of public safety spectrum available, which is very important now,” he told Satellite News. “It is very important that our police and emergency services can communicate with each other, so some of the spectrum will be used for public safety services. Some of it also could be used to support advanced wireless services.”

      He continued, “It is really beachfront spectrum; the spectrum has really good propagation characteristics. When you start talking about rural broadband wireless services, there is tremendous potential. It is not just the services that are provided, but the industries that develop around them show where the potential for economic development is really tremendous.

      Ferree said the commission has been watching the analog-to-digital TV transitions taking place on a global basis, including what is going on in the United Kingdom and in Italy. “The Italians have some pretty aggressive plans, and I don’t know if they will meet their goals. They are looking at the 2007 or so,” he pointed out. “The Germans are in the process of converting more cities this year. “Here in the United States, we can’t be left behind and have broadcasters sitting on analog spectrum for the next 30 years while the rest of the world goes ahead.”

      Ferree continued, “In the last three or four years, we have made a tremendous amount of progress in terms of the number of broadcasters that are up and transmitting digitally. There is a lot more equipment going into the market now. There is a lot more digital programming being provided. We are over the hump. The rate of the transition to digital television will continue to accelerate, and it is probably the single most important project for the Media Bureau during the next 12 months.”

      This was further underlined last week when FCC Chairman Michael Powell held a press conference to kick off an education campaign to highlight the importance of digital television. In what is considered a major initiative, the FCC will bring all segments of the television industry together to educate consumers.

      The Process

      The U.S. analog-to-digital transition has some intriguing dynamics. The statute Congress has put in place says that in any market where 85 percent of consumers are digitally enabled, the analog signal in theory could be switched off. However, the FCC can issue extensions so consumers can continue to receive analog broadcasts. However, there is a question as to whether this really will happen. Ferree admits this issue is a concern.

      “It is not only a concern for us, but it is also a concern for Congress. More importantly, it is a concern for all of the industries involved. Broadcasters, advertisers, and the cable and satellite industries do not want to see those TVs stop working,” Ferree commented. “Everybody has an interest in making sure the services continue to be provided. Then you get to the tricky question: What does that mean? It would be great if everyone went out and bought a new digital TV, but that is not going to happen.”

      Ferree added, “The real fix is along the lines of what they did in Berlin, which is to provide digital/analog converter boxes so that people with analog TVs can receive the digital signal and have that converted into something their TV set can display. Even though we hope the boxes are not going to be terribly expensive by the time we get to this point, some people may still not be able to afford them. Congress may then step in and provide some sort of subsidy for those boxes. Indeed, one of the most important and difficult issues remaining to be solved is how to address those consumers who rely on over-the-air analog television when the transition is complete.”

      The FCC is already working in this area. In May, the Media Bureau issued a Public Notice to help it learn more about these consumers as well as to explore potential options in terms of the transition.

      What Happens Next?

      The FCC now is under pressure to produce, with the next year being a critical period. “I think there will be a radical explosion in digital television services and products over the next 12 months. We are past the tipping point now,” Ferree told us. “Everybody is talking about it. If they haven’t gone out and bought a digital television, they are thinking about it and talking about it. We have gotten to the point where it has penetrated the perception in the mass market. People are aware of it. They may not understand it very well, and that is really our next big challenge: getting the message out there, and raising the level of understanding of the service.”

      However, while the digital transition is one of the key issues facing the FCC, there are others. In terms of how satellite TV is regulated, one of the main issues is providing distant network signals to local markets. Should satellite pay-TV services be regulated in the same way as cable? Ferree believes on the one hand this makes sense, but at the same time, differences between the two platforms mean such parity may not be possible.

      “The satellite platform has different advantages and disadvantages than does the cable platform, and maybe it should be allowed to use the advantages,” he said. “One of them is the fact it is a nationwide service. In the cable world, you don’t want or need to get the New York CBS affiliate in Indiana, but on the satellite service, why not?”

      He continued, “Maybe they could provide the major network affiliates in the Top Ten cities. Why not free them from some of the restrictions that prevent them from doing those things. I don’t know the answer to that; my sense is there is no particular interest in doing this.”

      Ferree also wondered why different TV transmission services aren’t allowed to be different in look and feel. Why not let them be different, he asked rhetorically, adding, “Maybe that is the reason you go to satellite versus cable.”

      (Kenneth Ferree, FCC, 202/418-7200)

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