Delay possible in FCC vote to convert to digital TV

Network broadcasters say consumers aren't ready for changeover

December 07, 2004|By BLOOMBERG NEWS

WASHINGTON - Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell expects to postpone until early next year a vote on his plan to convert the U.S. television system to digital technology by January 2009, a Powell aide said yesterday.

Broadcasters such as the Walt Disney Co.'s ABC network have lobbied against the plan, saying consumers aren't prepared to switch to digital television sets. Police and fire-safety groups have pushed the transition because it would free airwaves for emergency services.

A delay by Powell may lead Congress to pre-empt the FCC on the issue, increasing the likelihood that the transition to digital television will be pushed back, said Rudy Baca, an analyst at Precursor Group.

"It's quite possible the Powell plan was an interesting intellectual exercise that won't be voted on any time soon," said Baca, a former senior aide to James H. Quello, a longtime FCC commissioner.

Powell had planned to hold a Dec. 15 vote on the issue and now expects to submit it to an agency vote by March, said Jonathan Cody, a top Powell aide.

"There's no harm done in waiting," said Cody, Powell's senior media-regulation adviser. "We can only gain by getting more support from Congress and industry."

A U.S. conversion to digital TV, which offers superior pictures and sound at higher cost, would require broadcasters to cease use of analog broadcast frequencies. The government plans to give the analog spectrum to public-safety groups and sell it to cell-phone and Internet companies for billions of dollars.

The transition was given urgency by the 9/11 Commission, which found communications failures among New York City policemen, firefighters and other emergency workers in the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"We'd be disappointed in a delay because we need the spectrum now," said Harlin R. Mc- Ewen, a spokesman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "In major markets like New York and Los Angeles, where there's no spectrum available, it's critical."

Intel Corp., which sells chips that use radio technology to cell-phone and computer companies, also has pushed for a firm deadline.

"We'd prefer the FCC act before March because these issues need to be resolved," said Jennifer Greeson, an Intel spokeswoman.

One reason for the delay is that Powell wants to give priority to the FCC's Dec. 15 vote to change telecommunications rules, Cody said.

Those rules required local telephone companies such as Verizon Communications Inc. to sell low-cost access to phone networks to long-distance competitors such as MCI Inc.

Current law calls for broadcasters to return the airwaves once 85 percent of U.S. households receive digital signals, or by 2006, whichever comes later. But only about 2 percent of U.S. households now have digital equipment to receive the signals, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

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