FCC plans public awareness blitz about digital TV transition

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today announced a six-month digital TV public awareness marathon that will take commissioners to 80 communities across the country before the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline for ending analog TV broadcasts.

'The next six months is going to be challenging for all of us,' FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said in announcing the program.

The February deadline is set in stone ' or at least in statute ' and the transition to digital TV is necessary for establishing a nationwide public safety network that would link federal, state and local emergency response agencies. That network already is facing challenges other than getting broadcasters to vacate the necessary spectrum. An effort earlier this year to auction the spectrum to a carrier that would provide the public safety network failed to attract meaningful bids and the FCC probably will have to try again to auction the spectrum.

The commissioners will split up and visit the communities identified as being most at risk for disruption. Those are communities where more than 100,000 households, or at least 15 percent of households in a community, rely solely on over-the-air signals for TV service. Martin announced a schedule that would take commissioners to 23 cities from Anchorage, Alaska, to Atlanta by the end of the year. They intend to visit the remaining cities by the Feb. 17 deadline.

Congress recently repurposed $12 million of the FCC's budget to fund the program; Martin said it is likely the commission will go back to Congress to ask for an additional $20 million if a continuing appropriation is considered for FCC prior to passage of a fiscal 2009 budget.

The broadcast transition was mandated in the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005, which set a 'firm deadline' for analog spectrum recovery. Full power TV stations will have to give up the radio frequency spectrum now used for analog broadcasts and switch to digital signals on new frequencies. This will provide more efficient use of spectrum and enable services such as high definition TV. Generally viewers who have cable or satellite TV service or who have televisions capable or receiving digital signals will not be affected. However, viewers with antennas who receive an over-the-air signal will need to get a new television or a digital converter box, and might need to replace the antenna as well.

Congress has authorized up to $1.5 billion for a coupon program to help viewers pay for converter boxes.

FCC has selected Wilmington, N.C., as a test city and, five stations there will switch to digital signals on Sept. 8, although they will have the option of switching back to analog in the event of an emergency. The FCC also is working with the National Association of Broadcasters to organize what it called 'soft tests' in which stations temporarily switch off analog signals as a practical test viewer readiness for digital signals. More than 30 stations have conducted such tests.

The FCC auction earlier this year of the 700-MHz portion bands now occupied by TV broadcasters was a financial success, with total bids of more than $19.5 billion for 1,099 licenses in five bands, far outstripping the $10 billion reserve set by the FCC. Much of this spectrum will be used by commercial carriers to provide new types of IP-based mobile broadband services that could accommodate data and full Internet access as well as voice traffic.

However, bidding on the D block of spectrum to be used for the public safety network stalled early in the auction with one bid at $472 million ' far below the minimum price of $1.3 billion set for it. Bidders apparently have been scared off by the cost and difficulty of building out a single nationwide network, a large part of which would be used exclusively by first responders in state, local and public safety agencies around the country. During emergencies, public safety agencies would receive priority on all segments of the D block network, but details of the sharing agreements were to be worked out only after the auction, which proved to be one of the stumbling blocks.

Other options for developing the network are being considered. Among the choices are direct federal funding or possibly breaking up the spectrum into a number of regional licenses.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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