The digital television conversion end game is upon us, and everyone seems to be getting a little testy. Seemingly, not everyone is convinced that the consumer education efforts have prepared the public for the transition, and thus Washington seems to be preparing for problems. But, in a last minute attempt to solve some of the potential issues, both Congress and the new Administration have stepped into the breach to put pressure on broadcasters and the FCC to be prepared to deal with the February end date for analog TV. Congress passed legislation authorizing the FCC to allow some television stations in each market to continue to operate in analog after the end of the transition to tell consumers who didn’t make the switch what to do (an analog "life line service"). At the same time, Congress urged the FCC to mind the transition and not start off on new regulatory battles, causing the cancellation of this week’s FCC meeting. In this event-filled 10 days, the new Obama administration also stepped into the DTV transition, a potentially significant issue that will face the new administration less than a month after taking office, pushing broadcasters, cable companies and direct broadcast satellite companies to pay for and establish phone banks to provide assistance to consumers stranded by the transition.
The cancellation of the Commission’s meeting was perhaps the strangest of these matters. The FCC was prepared to hold a meeting later this week, with a full schedule of items to consider, including various items related, in one way or another, to the digital transition. Included were a series of fines to broadcasters, consumer electronics stores, and others for not doing everything required by the rules to facilitate the digital transition. The Commission was also planning to start the rulemaking process to authorize digital "fill-in" translators, i.e. low powered TV stations rebroadcasting a main station on other channels within the main station’s service area to fill holes in digital service. Plus, the FCC was to deal with the Chairman’s proposals for a free wireless Internet service on channels being vacated by television stations as part of the transition. Yet, Congressman Henry Waxman, the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Senator Rockefeller, the newly appointed Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee ( the committees with responsibility over the FCC) wrote a letter to the FCC saying that it should concentrate its efforts on the transition, and not take up issues on which the new administration may want a role (perhaps the wireless service). After receiving the letter, the December meeting was canceled (the first time in memory that the FCC did not have a monthly meeting as seemingly required by Section 5 of the Communications Act).
So what will the FCC concentrate on? One thing will be the new Congressional permission given to the FCC to allow some television stations to continue to broadcast in analog after the transition end date, providing an analog life line to those customers who are thrown overboard. Essentially, for a 30 day period after the end of the transition, these lifeline stations will be broadcasting nothing but messages that tell those that missed the message about the transition as to what they need to do to get with the digital program. The Commission will need to make decisions about which stations can operate as these lifelines without causing interference to other digital stations, and what rules will govern their operations. The bill requires that these rules be in place by January 15.
Congress has not been the only one pushing for more efforts to address any issues that may arise in the transition. According to a report published by TVNewsday, Tom Wheeler, former head of CTIA (the cellular industry trade association), who is working on the Obama transition team, had a meeting with representatives of the broadcast, cable and consumer electronics industries and essentially told them that there should be call centers set up and financed by these industries to answer questions about the transition, including calls from those people who end up without service on February 18. The message was apparently heard, as the NAB today announced that it plans to set up such a call center, as have several state broadcast associations.
The DTV transition is just two months away, and it’s clear that the pressure is on broadcasters to make sure that it goes smoothly. The political ramifications of widespread problems may be great – so broadcasters should do all that they can to assure the transition is as painless as possible.