Chairman: FCC Has No Coherent Plan for DTV

The U.S. will have significant problems switching from analog to digital television if the transition goes forward as scheduled on Feb. 17, the recently appointed acting chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said Friday.

The FCC has had no "coherent and coordinated plan" to transition the nation from analog to digital television during the past two years, Michael Copps said during a speech before the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee. Copps, a Democrat appointed acting chairman last week by U.S. President Barack Obama, ripped into digital-television transition efforts under his predecessor, Republican Kevin Martin.

"At this point, we will not have -- we cannot have -- a seamless DTV transition," Copps said. "There is no way to do in the 26 days new leadership has had here what we should have been laser-focused on for 26 months. That time is lost -- and it's lost at a cost. There is consumer disruption down the road we've been on. We need to realize this."

Copps said he's focusing on minimizing and repairing problems with the DTV transition. The transition is necessary after the U.S. Congress, in late 2005, passed legislation requiring U.S. TV stations to move to all-digital broadcasts and abandon analog spectrum between channels 52 and 69. Much of the cleared spectrum, in the 700MHz band, was sold in auctions that ended in March 2007, and many spectrum experts say the spectrum is optimal for wireless broadband services.

However, Robert Gibbs, spokesman for Obama, said he expects Congress will delay the DTV transition until June 12. The Senate has voted to delay the transition, but the House of Representatives on Wednesday wasn't able to get the two-thirds of the votes it needed to suspend House rules and rush a delay vote through. But the delay did receive 90 more votes for it than against it in the House, and Gibbs predicted the House would take up delay legislation next week under regular rules, with only a majority vote required.

Obama called for a delay in the DTV transition earlier this month, before he took office as president. His call for a delay came after the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) said its TV Converter Box Coupon Program, with a US$1.3 billion budget from Congress, was out of money.

The digital converter boxes are needed for televisions that get over-the-air broadcasts to get digital signals, and the NTIA program provided $40 coupons for U.S. residents to purchase the converter boxes. Basic converter boxes cost between $40 and $80.

Congress has not yet approved funding for additional converter boxes, and the NTIA continues to put names on a waiting list.

Several groups have also urged the FCC and Congress to let the transition happen as scheduled.

Copps, speaking before Gibbs' press conference, predicted that the coming weeks would be "extremely difficult" for the FCC and TV users.

"We never really dug deep enough to understand all the consequences that would attend the DTV transition -- not just the intended good results, but all the unintended consequences, too, the ones that usually cause the big problems," he said. "It's because we didn't have a well-thought-out and coherent and coordinated plan to ease the transition -- a plan to combine the resources we needed to avoid disruption."

There's been a "patchwork of disjoined efforts" to address the DTV transition, Copps added. "We didn't have a sense of real urgency until it was too late," he said.

The FCC is taking several steps on the assumption that the DTV transition will happen Feb. 17, Copps said. The agency is focusing on consumer outreach, including field operations and its Web site, to inform people about the transition, he said.

The agency is also working to figure out which consumers will be most at risk of losing all TV reception, and it is "coordinating nonstop" with the NTIA and private groups on education efforts, he said.

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