As we wrote on Friday, the Senate has passed the Bill that would extend from February 17 to June 12 the deadline for full-power television stations to transition to digital operations. This leaves the House of Representatives to once again consider the matter – supposedly in committee on Tuesday and perhaps by vote of the full House as early as Wednesday. In preparation for that consideration, there have been conflicting letters released by Congressmen supporting the bill and those who are oppose. The opponents claim that the ability of TV stations to transition before the end date, an option that was important to Senate Republicans who unanamously supported the extension of the transition date, may not in reality exist. The supporters of the bill point to the over 1.85 million people who are on the waiting list for the $40 coupons to be applied against the cost of DTV converters to allow analog televisions to receive digital signals after the transition. What do these letters add to the debate?
The Republican Congressmen leading the charge against the delay of the transition suggest in their letter that the ability of TV stations to transition before an extended June 12 DTV deadline is largely illusory, as they imply that most stations cannot transition until the last day because of interference concerns. They have asked the FCC to immediately provide information about how many stations would be precluded from a transition until June 12 if the date is extended. From our experience, while there are some stations that need to delay their DTV transition until some other station has changed channels, we would be surprised if most stations are precluded from doing so. Many stations are simply going to continue on the channels on which they are currently operating their DTV transitional facilities. Thus, if they are already operating their DTV stations on their post-transition channel, by definition they are not suffering from any preclusive interference issues. And the vast majority of the remaining stations are planning to operate after the transition on their current analog channel which itself, in most cases, is free from interference as the analog operation would have in most cases precluded other stations on interfering channels from operating in too close a proximity to the area served by the station. We are aware of many stations ready to transition early even if the deadline is extended until June 12, and we would think that these stations had reviewed their situations before deciding to do so, and would have been aware of interference concerns in preparation for their February 17 changeover. In some cases they may have coordinated an early change with any station that would have presented an interference issue. Thus, we would be surprised if the FCC report prepared for these Congressmen finds a great number of stations that will be forced to wait until June 12 to do their digital conversion even if they are inclined to make the change early.
The supporters of the transition point to number of people waiting for their coupons and, to make the point directly to each Congressman, they attach a list showing, by Congressional district, how many people from that district are on the wait list – numbers in almost every case in the thousands, and in almost every case about half of which are in households that only receive TV service over-the-air. This would seem to show each Congressman that there are real people in their districts who would be hurt if the transition is not delayed. One would think that this demonstration of the real impact on real people in each district would provide a powerful incentive for Congressmen to vote for the extension though, in the confused process that has been taking place, we’ll only know for sure what will happen, when it happens. Stay tuned.
Update (February 3, 9 PM) – Acting FCC Chairman Copps has reportedly confirmed that 61% of all TV stations could transition early simply by turning off their analog facilities, as they are already operating in digital on their final channel. He further speculated that most of the remaining stations may be able to do so as well. This confirms the suspicions that we expressed earlier today.
Also, it appears that the House Rules Committee has reported out the DTV extension bill to the full House of Representatives, leaving it possible that the extension could be voted on tomorrow, February 4 and, if approved by a majority vote as expected, it would then only need President Obama’s signature to become law.