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Digital television

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After years of delay, Congress is facilitating a nationwide deployment of digital television (DTV), which has been hailed as the most significant development in television technology since the advent of color television in the 1950s. With the passage of the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act in February 2006, Congress set February 17, 2009, as the deadline for television stations to cease broadcasting in analog signals and instead use digital feeds. The transition will require millions of analog television owners to purchase special converter boxes in order to watch TV. But it will also shore up valuable frequencies on the public airwaves.


Introduction

Digital television is a new broadcasting technology that uses digital signals rather than analog signals. The technology promises to change the way Americans watch TV, with greater channel capacity, higher quality picture and sound such as high-definition television (HDTV), and advanced programming like video-on-demand. DTV can provide video and data services not available on older analog technology. For example, using a single digital channel, a broadcaster can stream an HDTV program or multiple standard-definition (SD) programs simultaneously -- a process called multicasting. Similarly, digital broadcasts provide DVD-quality surround sound, whereas analog television broadcasts in the same format as FM stereo radio. Perhaps most significantly, DTV will allow over-the-air broadcasters to offer the same kinds of digital services that are currently offered by cable and satellite companies, such as pay-per-view. [1]

However, some 20 million homes in the United States still tune in to over-the-air broadcasts using "rabbit-ear" antennas, and these older TVs will need to be outfitted with a converter box in order to work after the Feb. 17, 2009, digital transition deadline. [2] Some lawmakers and consumer advocates are worried not enough consumers are aware of the pending transition, [3] and that not all broadcasters will be ready in time. [4]

In the 109th Congress, the legislation with the greatest impact on digital television was the DTV Act, also known as the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 (S. 1932, Title 3 of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.). The bill established the hard date for television broadcasters to vacate ultra high frequency (UHF) channels 52 through 69 to make room for wireless broadband service. The legislation set aside up to $1.5 billion to implement a coupon program for consumers to reduce the cost of purchasing a digital-to-analog converter box. [5] The bill also appropriated more than $1 billion to assist public safety agencies with developing interoperable communications systems. [6]

Broadcasters' Battle for Frequencies

History

In the early days, the government literally gave radio and television broadcasters licenses for free. It didn't take long for the industry to realize it was sitting on some of the best frequencies available. Television occupies a chunk of spectrum next to AM and FM radio, up through the 800 MHz band -- broadcasting signals that can penetrate walls, trees and high-rise buildings. The National Association of Broadcasters organized itself into a lobby in the 1920s, even before the Federal Communications Commission was formed in 1934. [7] For nearly a century, the NAB has led the fight to help broadcasters keep a hold on their increasingly valuable slice of spectrum -- the radio frequencies TV and radio stations use to broadcast. [8] Today, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) represents more than 8,300 radio and television stations and broadcast networks. [9] Much of its clout stems from a long-standing deal with Capitol Hill politicians: Broadcasters provide free TV to voters, charge sponsors for advertising time, and ensure that lawmakers get airtime and can buy advertising time at the cheapest rates. [10] But in the face of surging demand for spectrum from cellular, satellite and other high-tech competitors, as well as significant advances in wireless technology, broadcasters are finally being forced to give up their prime spectrum real estate. The DTV transition represents the culmination of a long-term struggle to wrestle free valuable spectrum from the broadcast industry.

Main article: Spectrum

The Telecommunications Act of 1996

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 (Govtrack) was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in 60 years and included major concessions to the broadcast industry. In the bill, lawmakers limited eligibility for DTV licenses to existing broadcasters. In addition, Congress and the FCC provided each broadcaster with a second six MHz spectrum license, effectively doubling their spectrum holdings. The idea was to allow broadcasters to offer analog and digital signals on two separate channels during a transition period and when enough consumers made the switch, broadcasters would return their analog channels and roll out enhanced programming such as HDTV or multicasting on the digital channels. [11] (DTV signals can't be received through the existing analog broadcasting infrastructure, known as NTSC). [12]

The consumer activist Ralph Nader referred to these concessions as "one of the single biggest giveaways in U.S. corporate welfare history." [13] The value of the spectrum allocated was estimated by then-FCC Chief Robert Pepper as between $11 billion and $70 billion. [14] Even the onetime GOP presidential candidate, former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, came out vehemently against the handout: "Since 1993, wireless phone and direct-broadcast satellite companies have paid for airwaves to upgrade or offer new services," he wrote in a 1997 editorial published in The New York Times. "Just last year, the Government auctioned off licenses for lower-quality spectrum, raising a whopping $20 billion. We don't give away trees to newspaper publishers. Why should we give away more airwaves to broadcasters? The airwaves are a natural resource. They do not belong to the broadcasters, phone companies or any other industry. They belong to the American people." [15]

The Balanced Budget Act of 1997

The omnibus budget bill Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (Govtrack), sponsored by Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, set a deadline of year-end 2006 for broadcasters to complete the digital TV transition. But an amendment -- introduced at the last minute by Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La. -- said that broadcasters need not return the frequencies until 85 percent of homes had digital sets. [16] That meant that TV stations could continue to operate in both analog and digital frequencies. This loophole effectively undermined the transition deadline, which came and went without broadcasters relinquishing any of their analog channels.

Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004

Congress returned to the idea of a DTV deadline in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (Govtrack), sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, which stipulated that lawmakers must act in the first session of the 109th Congress to develop a comprehensive approach for broadcasters to return spectrum in a timely manner, and that any delay would negatively impact public safety agencies set to receive some of the spectrum to adopt new interoperable communications systems. [17]

Broadcast vs. Cable

Despite the broadcast industry's vast spectrum holdings, the vast majority of Americans -- more than 85 percent -- pay to get their television service from cable, satellite or broadband service providers. [18] While broadcasters rely exclusively on advertising for revenue, the cable industry can advertise and charge for monthly service. In addition, cable has evolved from television service to "triple-play" packages of cable, phone and broadband service that can charge at least $100 a month per household.

Broadcasters first retaliated against the cable onslaught in the Cable Television Consumer Protection Act of 1992 (Thomas.gov), which set price caps on cable service, required that cable systems carry all broadcast television programs, and allowed broadcasters to charge cable operators a "retransmission consent" fee for their programs. The 1996 telcom legislation did away with price caps, but the broadcast industry clung on to the latter provisions. As a result, the media industry consolidated. The broadcast networks teamed up with Hollywood studios and cable networks to better leverage their "free" network content for carriage by the cable operators. [19]

Skeptical of sharper resolution translating into bigger advertising profits, broadcasters balked at transitioning to HDTV for years. Nevertheless, according to the NAB, broadcasters have spent billions making the switch to digital. More than 1,600 stations currently broadcast in the new technology. The organization touts on its Web site the numerous advantages of digital compression technology, including "more local news, local sports, pubic affairs, multilingual programming, religious programming and expanded coverage of natural disasters and weather emergencies that remain the hallmark of local broadcasting."[20]

Similarly, over the past decade, the cable industry has invested more than $110 billion to build a fiber-optic infrastructure that offers advances in digital technology, according to the Cable and Telecommunications Association, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of cable companies across the country. The investment, the organization argues, has led to new HDTV digital channels and programming lineups. More than 30 networks now provide high-definition programming on a full- or part-time basis in news, sports, movies, general interest and other genres. By June 2006, 97 million U.S. television households were passed by at least one cable system offering HDTV service, which represents all of the top 100 markets, according to the NCTA. Of all designated market areas (DMAs), a total of 203 markets (out of 210) were served by at least one cable system that offers high-definition programming. [21]

But despite a 2005 agreement between cable companies and broadcasters to ensure local public television digital programming would be carried on cable systems throughout the country, the battle appears to be heating up. The NAB has funded a Web site called www.multicasting.com that features a petition to keep cable and satellite from stripping multicast content from their systems. The site explains how the technology will allow local broadcasters to deliver as many as six free stations, from local weather to expanded local sports coverage. "But you won’t get these choices if the cable monopolies and satellite providers get their way," the promotion states. "They’re worried that free multicasting content might compete with the cable networks they own themselves." [22]

The DTV Act

As part of another omnibus budget bill, Congress passed the DTV Act, or the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 (S. 1932, Title 3 of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.). President Bush signed the bill into law in February 2006. After years of delay, it established a hard date -- Feb. 17, 2009 -- for broadcasters to cease analog television transmissions and transition to digital technology. Congress gave the FCC authority to terminate analog licenses for full-power television stations and reclaim the spectrum for public safety and commercial wireless broadband services. (The deadline for low-power television and translator stations was to be established at a future date.) By the end of the transition, all digital television transmissions will be in the spectrum currently occupied by TV channels 2 through 51 -- the "core" TV broadcast spectrum. Meanwhile, television channels 52 through 69 in the 700 MHz band of spectrum will be cleared for wireless communications.

The motive behind the policy in part was to encourage the deployment of wireless broadband service, which is a rapidly expanding industry. According to the FCC, more than 100 million cell phone subscribers signed up for service in the United States in a five-year period ending June 2006, from 118.4 million in June 2001 to 219.4 million in June 2006. In addition, the number of Americans using mobile devices capable of accessing the Internet at broadband speeds has grown from fewer than 100,000 in June 2000 to over 11 million in June 2006, though the FCC's definition of broadband is a mere 200 kilobits per second (Kbps). [23]

Main article: Broadband availability

Deadlines and Extensions

The DTV Act established two specific statutory deadlines for the commercial auction of the 60 MHz of "recovered analog" spectrum: (1) the auction must begin no later than Jan. 28, 2008, and (2) the auction proceeds must be deposited in the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Fund by June 30, 2008. [24] But not all broadcasters will be ready for the Feb. 17, 2009, DTV deadline. As of May 2007, the FCC granted extensions to nearly 150 TV stations that had yet to finish construction of their digital facilities to complete the transition. [25] The FCC says there are currently 1,702 stations licensed to broadcast in DTV, with 1,603 on the air with a signal. [26] In the top 30 television markets, all 119 top-four network-affiliated television stations (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox) are on the air in digital. [27]

Converter Box Coupon Program

The DTV Act also authorized the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to establish the Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program. An estimated 110 million U.S. households receive some form of cable, or multichannel video service, and won't be impacted by the DTV deadline, according to a recent FCC report detailing competition in the cable industry. [28] But as many as 20 million households rely solely on over-the-air broadcast television, and only a fraction of these households are equipped with digital televisions capable of receiving the new digital signals. Estimates for the number of U.S. households that rely on over-the-air broadcasts vary, from 12 percent to 18 percent. [29]

To help facilitate the digital television transition, Congress appropriated up to $1.5 billion to assist the owners of analog televisions purchase digital-to-analog converter boxes. The devices won’t be necessary for owners of televisions connected to cable, satellite or another pay-television service, nor will they be needed for televisions with a built-in digital tuner, which come on most models sold within the past 5 years. Under the coupon program, between Jan. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, U.S. households will be eligible to request up to two coupons, worth $40 each, to be used toward the purchase of up to two converter boxes. [30] If the coupon program's initial $990 million funding appropriation is used up, the legislation permits Congress to increase the amount by another $510 million. If the additional funds are required, eligibility for those coupons will be limited exclusively to over-the-air-only television households. [31] Additional information can be found at NTIA's Web site or by calling 1-888-DTV-2009.

Electronic device-makers LG and RCN have made prototype converter boxes, according to an Associated Press video about the digital television transition. Meanwhile, the sale of DTVs continues to accelerate. The industry trade group Consumer Electronics Association estimated in 2005 that since 1998, more than 17 million DTV sets have been sold to consumers, who have spent more than $30 billion to purchase the devices. CEA estimates that, by 2009, Americans will purchase more than 152.3 million DTV tuners and over-the-air tuners will be found in 86 percent of American homes. [32]

Legislation

The transition to DTV will require content providers to produce programs entirely in digital formats; television broadcasters and cable and satellite companies to deliver programming on digital signals; and consumers to purchase televisions or set-top boxes capable of receiving or converting digital feeds. [33]

In the 110th Congress, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) introduced the Digital Television Consumer Education Act of 2007 (Govtrack). The bill is designed to better inform consumers about the upcoming DTV transition by requiring retailers to prominently display consumer alerts about the digital television transition, cable providers to include information about the transition in consumer bills, and broadcasters to report to the Federal Communications Commission on a quarterly basis public education programs about the transition, among other efforts. The bill was introduced in January, but has not yet been scheduled for debate.

<USbillinfo congress="110" bill="H.R.608" />

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch resources

Sources

Acknowledgment: The first version of this article, "Digital Television: A Decades-long Transition In the Air", was written by Brendan McGarry, staff reporter with the Center for Public Integrity's Well Connected Project.

  1. Lennard Kruger, Digital Television: An Overview, Congressional Research Service, updated Jan. 23, 2007.
  2. Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FCC 07-72), Federal Communications Commission, released April 27, 2007.
  3. Brendan McGarry, Digital TV Transition Needs More Publicity, Senate Staffer Says The Center for Public Integrity's "Well Connected" Project, March, 4 2007.
  4. John Eggerton, FCC Gives Stations More Time To Convert To Digital Broadcasting & Cable, May 18, 2007.
  5. Digital-To-Analog Converter Box Program The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
  6. Public Safety Interoperable Communications Grant Program The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
  7. Drew Clark, Spectrum Wars, National Journal, Feb. 19, 2005.
  8. Drew Clark, Spectrum Wars, National Journal, Feb. 19, 2005.
  9. About NAB, National Association of Broadcasters.
  10. Drew Clark, Spectrum Wars, National Journal, Feb. 19, 2005.
  11. Blair Levin et al., 700 MHz: A Pivotal Auction Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, Inc., March 2, 2007.
  12. Lennard Kruger, Digital Television: An Overview, Congressional Research Service, updated Jan. 23, 2007.
  13. Ralph Nader, Testimony Before the House Committee on the Budget Nader.org, June 30, 1999.
  14. Ralph Nader, Testimony Before the House Committee on the Budget Nader.org, June 30, 1999.
  15. Bob Dole, Giving Away the Airwaves The New York Times, March 27, 1997.
  16. Drew Clark, Spectrum Wars, National Journal, February 18, 2005.
  17. Lennard G. Kruger, Digital Television: An Overview Congressional Research Service, updated Aug. 22, 2006.
  18. 12th Annual Video Competition Report to Congress Federal Communications Commission, Released March 3, 2006.
  19. Drew Clark, Spectrum Wars, National Journal, February 18, 2005.
  20. Digital Broadcasting,National Association of Broadcasters.
  21. Digital Television Transition National Cable and Telecommunications Association.
  22. Multicasting = More Local Choice National Association of Broadcasters.
  23. Reporter and Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking 07-72 Federal Communications Commission, Released April 27, 2007.
  24. Reporter and Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking 07-72 Federal Communications Commission, Released April 27, 2007.
  25. John Eggerton FCC Gives Stations More Time To Convert To Digital Broadcasting & Cable, May 18, 2007.
  26. John Eggerton FCC Gives Stations More Time To Convert To Digital Broadcasting & Cable, May 18, 2007.
  27. Reporter and Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking 07-72 Federal Communications Commission, Released April 27, 2007.
  28. 12th Annual Video Competition Report to Congress Federal Communications Commission, Released March 3, 2006.
  29. Reporter and Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking 07-72 Federal Communications Commission, Released April 27, 2007.
  30. Commerce Department Issues Final Rule to Launch Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, March 12, 2007.
  31. Commerce Department Issues Final Rule to Launch Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program U.S. Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, March 12, 2007.
  32. 12th Annual Video Competition Report to Congress Federal Communications Commission, Released March 3, 2006.
  33. Lennard G. Kruger, Digital Television: An Overview Congressional Research Service, updated Aug. 22, 2006.

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