The FCC’s Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking implementing changes resulting from the Congressional delay in the DTV transition deadline and seeking comment on a number of proposed rule changes has been published in the Federal Register. Comments on the Commission’s proposed rules, including changes to the transition procedures that would restrict the ability of television stations
The House of Representatives, after a fairly contentious debate, today passed the Bill extending the termination date for analog service by full-power TV stations, extending the Digital Television deadline until June 12. By that date, all full-power stations will need to complete the transition to digital so that, on June 13, there will be no…
Earlier this week, we wrote about the apparent compromise in the Senate between Republicans and Democrats that would seemingly allow the Digital Television conversion deadline to be delayed from the current date of February 17 that stations have been warning consumers about for years, pushing that date back until June 12. That compromise legislation passed the…
This week, an agreement by Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking minority member on the Senate Commerce Committee, to an extension of the DTV transition deadline from February 17 until June 12, was announced. The delay has been requested so that issues about the distribution of the $40 government coupons to consumers to ease their purchase of converters to allow analog TVs to pick up digital signals so that they will continue to work after the transition date can be resolved; and so that there can be more targeted information about the transition delivered to groups that many feel may not have received the message about the transition. But Congressional Republicans have thus far blocked attempts by the Obama administration to delay the transition, so this agreement by Senator Hutchinson is viewed as a sign that the extension may very well be approved in the near term. As the transition deadline is only weeks away, if Congress is going to act, it needs to do so immediately, or the effect of any delay will be negligible as the transition will have, for all practical purposes, already occurred.
Most broadcast stations have made plans for the transition – ordering the equipment, scheduling tower crews, coordinating the changes in frequencies with other stations in the same region that may be necessary to accommodate the digital operations. In some cases, stations have already ceasing their analog broadcasting so that the new equipment necessary to accomplish the transition can be installed, or because these stations will be operating digitally on their analog frequency and have had to allow a tower crew or other engineering support to conduct the work necessary to allow the digital operations on the final channel to occur before the February deadline dates. Given the limited number of such crews, not all of these final changes could happen on a single date, so stations have been changing to all digital operations now as the final date approaches. Without Congressional action very soon, the transition will have, for the most part, already occurred.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced that he will be leaving the Commission on Tuesday as the new President is inaugurated, and thus will not be present at the FCC to set any last minute policy for the DTV transition. In fact, if Martin had decided to stay for the end of the transition, he might well have had to stick around for a while, as there are bills making their way through Congress to delay the February 17 deadline for the transition to digital television. Senator Rockefeller has introduced a bill that would extend the deadline to June 12, which Senate Republicans blocked last week, though it will reportedly be reintroduced this week. At the same time, the three remaining Commissioners have all released letters that indicate that there are significant transition problems that need to be resolved before the transition deadline. While there are those who wonder if the delay will really solve the problems that may exist – the movement is in the direction of a delay.
The letters from the Commissioners are most interesting. First came a letter from Commissioner McDowell, not directed to Congress, but instead to Chairman Martin, publicly asking for information about the FCC’s DTV phone bank to answer questions from consumers about the transition. According to the McDowell letter, he was unable to get information about the status of upgrades to the system to handle the expected influx of calls at the end of the transition. McDowell also complained about calls that were not answered at all, or which had long wait times, when consumers called – wait times that often resulted in connections with a voicemail system. And he raised questions about the failure of the phonebank to be open on weekends. It has now been announced that IBM has been hired to man the phonebank, perhaps answering some of the questions Commissioner McDowell raised in his letter.
A day after the Obama transition team wrote to Congress suggesting that the DTV transition now scheduled for February 17 be delayed, there are indications that a bandwagon effect is beginning to develop in favor of such a delay. Broadcasting and Cable magazine’s website reports that the four major TV networks have indicated that they support a delay in the transition if it will better serve their viewers, and that Senator Rockefeller has started drafting legislation to delay the transition. The New York Times featured a guest editorial from two former FCC Chairmen – Republican Michael Powell and Democrat William Kennard – supporting the delay (and mentioning one of the same issues that we had mentioned the day before – the need for education of consumers about the need for different antennas to receive the digital signal). But others are not so sure that a delay makes sense.
While the NY Times editorial may make it look like the delay request is a bipartisan effort, there are other indications that there is at least some evidence of partisan differences beginning to develop. The NY Times today quotes Joe Barton, a senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as opposing a change. Republican FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the delay will confuse consumers, while Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein is quoted in the same article as being sympathetic to the postponement. While the political groups are taking sides, many in industry seem reluctant to delay the transition date.
What a difference a few days makes. At the beginning of this week, it was full speed ahead for the February 17 termination of analog television. Then NTIA announced that it was out of money to pay for DTV coupons to assist the public in buying converter boxes so that analog TV sets will continue to work after the transition. This action, in turn, caused Consumers Union to ask Congress for a delay in the transition, resulting in Congressman Markey’s office suggesting that the DTV transition might need to be delayed (as we wrote yesterday). Today, the other shoe dropped as the Obama transition team formally wrote to Congress asking for a delay of the termination of analog television. That letter leaves everyone asking – will Congress respond? If so, what are the ramifications?
The NAB responded with a press release talking about how broadcasters are still prepared to meet the deadline, and how the deadline has focused all parties (TV stations, electronics manufacturers, cable and satellite companies) on doing what they need to do in order to be ready for the transition. But the Obama team’s call for the postponement does not seem to be focused on the readiness of program providers to accomplish the switch, but instead on the readiness of viewers to deal with the new digital environment, especially given the lack of coupons for last minute shoppers still waiting to buy their converter boxes. As we’ve written before, many in Washington are worried about the political ramifications of the transition – especially if millions of people wake up on February 18 and can’t watch the Today Show or Good Morning America. And while that is a legitimate concern, one wonders if it will ever be possible to prepare everyone for the transition deadline. Sure, if the deadline is postpone 4 or 5 months, there will be a marginal increase in people who are ready, but there will still be stragglers. Catching up to them all may never happen until they are hit with the reality of their analog sets not working on the day after the transition, whenever that day may be. If so, shouldn’t someone at least consider the costs that a delay will impose on broadcasters?
Several press reports were issued today suggesting that there is at least some consideration in Congress of delaying the DTV transition now scheduled to be completed on February 17. The consideration stems from the announcement that the NTIA (the National Telecommunications and Information Administration) had run out of money to issue the $40 coupons…