Tech industry wants a firm deadline set for digital TV

Technology companies embarked on a campaign yesterday to urge lawmakers to support a hard deadline for switching from analog broadcast signals — the decades-old standard for television reception — to digital signals. The switch would free up a sizable portion of the telecommunications spectrum to new technological uses.
Technology companies embarked on a campaign yesterday to urge lawmakers to support a hard deadline for switching from analog broadcast signals — the decades-old standard for television reception — to digital signals.

The switch would free up a sizable portion of the telecommunications spectrum to new technological uses.
File photo
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) has been drafting legislation to set a transition deadline.


Technology companies, particularly computer-chip maker Intel, have been eyeing the analog spectrum, which they called “beachfront property” in the telecommunications realm, for some time. Intel has been developing a new long-range wireless network technology that would make use of that span of the spectrum.

Intel and various companies and industry groups yesterday announced a new group, the High Tech Digital TV (DTV) Coalition, that would press for a specific date when analog TV signals would switch to more compact digital transmissions, making the coveted spectrum available.

“These companies and associations at long last are going to bring conclusion to the digital television transition,” said Information Technology Industry Council President Rhett Dawson. “Nothing focuses the mind like the hangman’s noose, and date certain can bring focus to this issue.”

The coalition, led by Janice Obuchowski, president of Freedom Technologies Inc., would not detail its budget or describe how much lobbying or advertising it will do, but Peter Pitsch, director of telecom policy at Intel, said the group would be a formidable force in the digital television debate.

“We’re deadly earnest. Look at the companies you have here; it’s the cream of the cream of U.S. companies,” Pitsch said of the coalition, which includes AT&T, Dell, Cisco Systems, IBM, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, among other companies and trade groups. “We have a significant budget, and we’re willing to do what it takes to win.”

A digital transition could occur as soon as Dec. 31, 2006.

The coalition sent letters to lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce and Senate Commerce committees earlier this week. Another group of tech companies organized by the Computer Systems Policy Project sent a similar letter.

Broadcasters have opposed a hard deadline, citing concerns that consumers are not ready for a transition that would render obsolete many of the television sets in use today.

“The corporate financial interests of a handful of technology companies should not trump the needs of American television viewers,” wrote Eddie Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), in a letter to the same lawmakers.

A spokesman for NAB said the topic would likely be “one of the bigger issues for us” in the coming months.

Local broadcasters have primarily been concerned that when the transition is made, cable networks will not carry all of their signals, making it far more difficult for households to obtain those stations.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) is the key congressional player in the digital transition debate. He has been drafting legislation that would set a “date certain” for transition.

Under current guidelines, the switchover will take place either on Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of television viewers can receive a digital signal.

Some observers speculated that the tech coalition’s first assignment would be solidifying uncertain support for a hard deadline among Barton’s committee members, some of whom have voiced concerns that the public might not be ready to see its analog sets turned off.

“I haven’t counted every last vote,” Obuchowski said. “We’re confident of where we stand in the House.”

Tech companies supported the idea of softening the blow of transition by providing set-top conversion boxes to consumers, especially those in low-income brackets, but many questions remain as to how much the devices would cost, which households would receive them and how many each household would get.

When the switchover occurs, a portion of the analog bandwidth would likely be auctioned off by the government. Various estimates abound as to how much money such an auction would generate. Tech companies have pegged the figure as high as $20 billion, a figure tantalizing to lawmakers struggling to keep a ballooning budget deficit in check.

Tech companies have said that opening up the spectrum will spur economic growth through innovation.

Intel has hired an economist to do evaluations of the macroeconomic impact of the switchover.