Heavy lifting in transition to digital TV

With one year and a few days to go in what the former chief of the Federal Communications Commission's Media Bureau called 'the most ambitious technology transition in the nation's history,' much of the nuts-and-bolts work in moving the nation's broadcast infrastructure to digital TV remains to be done.

Government policy decisions, technical rulings by the FCC, millions of dollars worth of construction by the broadcast industry and a whole lot of consumer education still is necessary before the nation pulls the plug on analog TV on Feb. 17, 2009, said W. Kenneth Ferree, president at the Progress and Freedom Foundation.

Ferree, an early advocate of the digital TV transition during his tenure at the Media Bureau from 2001 to 2005, moderated a PFF seminar on the program Friday on Capitol Hill.

The nation's TV industry (with the exception of some low-power broadcasters) is being required to move to all-digital broadcasting by next February. The more efficient digital signals will free up 108 MHz of RF spectrum, nearly one-third of the current spectrum now in use. That will be returned to the government and much of that spectrum in the 700 MHz band is being auctioned off to commercial providers for a new generation of wireless services. But 24 MHz his being reserved for public safety communications, said Anthony Wilhelm, director of consumer education and public information at the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

NTIA's multimillion-dollar program to deliver coupons to consumers for the purchase of set-top digital conversion boxes is the most visible part of the digital TV outreach program. But behind the scenes, the FCC Media Bureau is working overtime to complete frequency and channel assignments and approve antenna paths for 2,500 broadcasters, said David Donovan, president at the Association for Maximum Service Television.

This work is critical to the transition, because broadcast stations will not be able to do necessary work on transmitters and antennas until these assignments are made. In many cases, stations will have to order and site new antennas and equipment. It takes from 90 to 120 days to get that equipment, and there are only a limited number of crews in the country to do the specialized work on towering antennas, Donovan said.

It is the coordination of all of these moving parts that make the transition such a daunting task, said FCC senior legal adviser Rick Chessen. Because many stations with overlapping coverage areas will be switching channels, coordination is needed to keep them out of each other's way during the switchover.

This will result in what Chessen called 'an elaborate dance' that will begin this summer with some service interruptions as transmission equipment is built out and switched over.

To date, about 800 stations are ready to go and another 1,100 are on the way to being able to meet the deadline. But another 600 still have major work to do. Reports are due from all stations to the FCC next week on their current status and their expected schedule for the transition.

Chessen said a Y2K-like effort is needed to pull government and industry resources together to see the complex process through to its hard deadline. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has proposed such a joint task force to the White House.

While administrators and industry as busy seeing that the transition happens, a lot of energy and money is being spent to ensure that analog TV sets do not go dark next Feb. 17. That means educating the public and helping them to buy digital converter boxes where needed.

One of the first challenges in this effort is deciding who needs the boxes. Generally, because the digital transition applies to broadcast signals, only those sets that get an off-air signal through an antenna should need the boxes. Cable and satellite customers, as well as owners of digital TV sets, will not need the boxes.

As far as antennas go, 'as a general proposition, if you get analog signals today, you will get digital signals with the same antenna,' Donovan said (although the converter box will be needed for your television to use that signal). The exception to this is that some stations will change their channels from the lower part of the VHF band to the UHF band. If an antenna does not have a UHF loop, a new antenna might be needed to get the UHF signal.

Households can order up to two $40 coupons toward the purchase of a digital converter box, which are beginning to appear on the shelves of electronics stores. The coupons can be ordered online at https://www.dtv2009.gov, or by phone at (888) 388-2009. So far, 2.6 million households have ordered about 5 million coupons. As of this afternoon, NTIA had approved 39 boxes as eligible for the program, although Wilhelm said that number is growing each day. The boxes typically sell for $40 to $70 each. About 9,700 participating retail outlets now have the boxes available.

The coupons will be available through March 2009, and NTIA will begin sending them out across the country next week. The agency just finished pilot programs with the coupons in Washington, D.C., and Wichita, Kan., to ensure that the payment process from the Treasury to the retailers worked. It does, Wilhelm said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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