Dingell comments raise questions about 700 MHz transition date
Lackluster federal efforts to ease the digital-television (DTV) transition could lead to a delay in the 700 MHz transition date of Feb. 17, 2009, that was enacted a year ago, the chairman of the House Commerce Committee indicated this week.
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) raised the issue in a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and in reported comments to journalists following the address, which sharply criticized the Bush Administration’s DTV transition plan.
“We have to fix a date that … makes sense,” Dingell said to reporters after the speech, according to several press reports.
During his speech, Dingell noted several problems with the DTV transition, most notably the lack of details about the federal program to provide subsidized digital-to-analog converter boxes that will enable existing analog TV sets to receive digital programming after the transition date that is less than two years away.
Currently, there are no technical standards for the boxes or any procedures associated with the distribution of the boxes via retail outlets, Dingell said. With the program mandated to start in 10 months, such uncertainty potentially will be problematic for politicians on Capitol Hill, he said.
“While there is a lot we don’t know, we can be certain of one thing: If the converter box program doesn’t proceed smoothly, a day of reckoning will come,” Dingell said in his speech. “A scapegoat will be found. People will be voted off the island.”
Democrats voiced this sentiment repeatedly a year ago, when the Republican-controlled Congress enacted a DTV transition plan requiring broadcasters to stop transmitting analog signals on Feb. 17, 2009. With broadcasters transmitting only spectrally-efficient digital signals, 84 MHz of new spectrum will be made available to wireless operators—24 MHz for public-safety entities and 60 MHz for commercial carriers, which would bid on the airwaves in an auction that must begin by Jan. 28, 2008.
CTIA, the primary trade association for cellular carriers, would oppose any proposal to delay the 700 MHz auction—a notion that could “open up Pandora’s Box,” CTIA spokesman Joe Farren said.
“We supported the DTV legislation that is now law, and we certainly support having the auction in the established statutory timeframe,” Farren said. “We want to ensure that it occurs within the timeframe that is allowed by law. We wouldn’t support extending the deadline.”
Revenue generated from the auction—estimated at $10 billion by the Congressional Budget Office—has been earmarked to pay for the converter-box program, a public-safety interoperability grant program, some enhancements to 911 networks and deficit reduction. A delay in the DTV transition could have significant impacts on these budgetary programs, the auction, broadcasters’ business plans and wireless operators’ planning for the 700 MHz band.
Calling the initial proposal from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) an effort that treats the DTV transition as “little more than an unwelcome homework assignment,” Dingell noted that the $5 million cap on consumer-education funds is inadequate, given the importance of the program.
“As you must recognize, this effort will require much more than that—$5 million won’t even buy two 30-second Super Bowl spots,” Dingell said in his speech.
While some broadcasters may be treating the DTV transition like a political campaign in terms of their information push, Dingell said there is a notable distinction.
“You can win a political campaign with low turnout and a plurality of the votes – sometimes you don’t even need a plurality, as the 2000 Presidential election taught us,” he said. “If the digital transition campaign has low turnout and only captures 51% of the over-the-air audience, I doubt it would lead to much of a victory celebration.”