Digital-television rule sparks lobbying battle

The decades-old analog television signal is set to go digital in the coming years, a move that would open up a coveted swath of broadcast spectrum to new uses while potentially rendering millions of analog television sets obsolete.

With the switchover happening as soon as the end of next year, a number of lobbying groups are pursuing the issue on the Hill or at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), marking the beginnings of what could emerge as a major telecom battle.

The Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) is forming a new coalition of information-technology companies and trade groups to press for the earliest possible date for the transition, which is now scheduled for Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of households have the capacity to receive a digital signal, whichever comes later. With digital penetration still well shy of 85 percent, the coalition is pushing for the percentage requirement to be dropped in favor of a hard date.

“We’re focused like a laser on getting a date certain for transition to digital TV,” said ITI president Rhett Dawson. “That is beachfront property, and we’d like to see it become available,” he said, referring to the portion of the spectrum that would be vacated by analog broadcasts. He noted that the new spectrum real estate could be used for a juiced-up form of wireless Internet transmission that would reach a wider geographic area.

Some lawmakers are also keen to see broadcasters vacate the analog spectrum. Part of it would go to first responders to allow for easier communication between police and fire departments in the event of an emergency. A larger portion, however, would be auctioned off, reaping a significant sum for government coffers.

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) has said he plans to introduce a bill to set a hard transition date of Dec. 31, 2006. But broadcasters and rural and minority groups are concerned that transitioning too quickly could leave many households with no television signal at all. They formed the Coalition for a Smart Digital TV Transition last fall to underscore concerns that a quick transition could turn millions of analog television sets into expensive paperweights overnight.

“For the most part, the public is completely unaware that this is going to happen, so the thought of doing it sooner rather than later is of great concern,” said Manuel Maribal, co-chairman of the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership. “Fixing December 2006 as a date is a mistake because it would leave a lot of people out in the cold.” Hispanics are more likely than the average viewer to rely on analog broadcast signals, Maribal said.

Broadcasters currently transmit both analog and digital signals, which increases their transmission costs. Although they would benefit from no longer being required to provide an analog signal, a great concern is the lost ad revenue they could suffer by not reaching many analog-only households.

Rural groups have also stepped into the fray. “I can guarantee you rural America won’t be ready” by the end of 2006, said Larry Mitchell, chief executive of the National Corn Growers Association. “A lot of rural Americans don’t have access to cable or can’t afford satellite TV. A large majority still depend on that antenna on top of the house.”

Barton has reached out to Democrats on the committee to inquire about co-sponsorship of his bill, lobbyists said. While it appears likely that the measure will gain sufficient support in the House, it may encounter opposition in the Senate, where last year the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee voted 13 to 9 to gut a similar provision.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said yesterday that he had asked his former chief of staff Mitch Rose, now a lobbyist for Disney, which owns ABC, to quarterback discussions with broadcasters about how to “completing digital transition as soon as possible.  We do not want broadcasters prematurely cut off,” he said. 

Lawmakers are exploring the option of subsidizing converters that would allow analog television sets to interpret digital signals, although the cost of such a plan is still unclear.