FCC hopes to extend digital TV deadline to '09 after technology fails to catch fire

Agency aim of regaining analog spectrum in peril

October 14, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - TV viewers may have until 2009 to obtain television sets able to receive digital signals.

The reason: Lawmakers and the Federal Communications Commission want to wean TV stations off the analog broadcasting spectrum and onto digital broadcasting, but they don't think consumers will be ready to switch by the end of 2006, the current legal deadline.

So they're eyeing a loophole that gets them around the 2006 due date: The law also says the transition to digital sets should come once 85 percent of American households own TVs that get digital signals. But that figure today may only be as high as 10 percent, according to some estimates.

"We're pushing the digital transition, we'd like to see it happen as soon as possible, but we think 2009 is a more reasonable date to be shooting for," said Richard Chessen, head of the FCC's digital task force. "Everybody basically assumes that the statutes are going to require an extension beyond 2006."

Many expect the change to happen in the next session of Congress. In the meantime, the FCC has adopted an unofficial target date of Jan. 1, 2009, for the transition.

"Having a deadline of 2009 will add millions more digital sets to the marketplace before analog signals are turned off," FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell told the Senate commerce committee in September.

Members of the broadcasting industry like the idea.

"The issue for us is potentially disenfranchising tens of millions of Americans from local TV, and we would suggest that we need to make this transition in a way that is consumer-friendly," said Dennis Wharton, the spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group representing television stations.

But media critics say an extension would allow broadcasters to hog large segments of publicly owned broadcast spectrum that's worth billions to the wireless phone industry and other commercial communications interests.

"The broadcasters are spectrum-squatters," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a public interest group in Washington. "Spectrum is the new gold - it's the oil wells of cyberspace."

When Congress mandated the transition to digital television in 1997, it gave TV stations the digital broadcast spectrum for free as an incentive to develop it.

At the time, several lawmakers protested Congress' generosity.

"Seventy billion dollars' worth of [spectrum] assets in the U.S. are being given away to the richest people in America," said Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina.

Because of such concerns, the law required broadcasters to give back their shares of the analog spectrum after the transition. Once returned, it's expected to bring the U.S. Treasury as much as $42 billion at auction.

Susan Adams Loyd, the general manager of WAWS TV-30 and WTEV TV-47 - a Fox and a CBS affiliate, respectively, in Jacksonville, Fla. - said stations like hers that broadcast on digital and analog frequencies are bearing the burden of an awkward transitional period.

"It's a huge expense for us," Loyd said. "Advertisers at this time are not paying for the commercials that are running on the digital spectrum because there aren't enough homes with digital TVs for advertisers to sell to."

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