DTV Transition Gains Steam as Qualcomm Pushes Back

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Opposition to a later deadline for the U.S. digital-TV transition is fading, though mobile technology company Qualcomm is holding fast.

TV stations currently have to shut down broadcasting on their analog channels on Feb. 17, freeing up valuable frequencies for mobile data services, but new legislation would push back that date to June 12. The federal government has run out of money for coupons to subsidize the cost of converter boxes, and officials say too many consumers aren't aware of the transition. The Obama administration has called for a delay, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, last week introduced a bill in the Senate that would push back the day of reckoning.

Verizon, which opposed an extension early last week, became a cautious supporter on Friday. In a letter to Rockefeller and other Congressional leaders, viewed by IDG News Service, Verizon Chairman and CEO Ivan Seidenberg said Rockefeller had assured him there would be no further extension beyond the June date.

"Events since Monday have reduced the danger of repeated delay and Verizon, as a result, can support a carefully limited extension of the deadline," Seidenberg wrote.

Both Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility plan to use frequencies that will be freed by the transition to deliver mobile data services on LTE (Long-Term Evolution) networks. AT&T, which doesn't plan to roll out LTE until 2011, had granted its backing to a limited extension before rival Verizon did. Verizon plans to begin commercial LTE deployment in 2009, though its network won't go nationwide by the end of this year.

Qualcomm, the mobile technology vendor now building a national network for broadcasting digital TV to cell phones, has a more urgent need for analog channels to be vacated. CEO Paul Jacobs wrote to Congressional leaders that any delay in the transition would deny its MediaFLO service to an additional 40 million people due to get access in a planned expansion of the network.

The company bought licenses for Channel 55 in many U.S. media markets several years ago to build the MediaFLO service, which delivers 15 channels of programming to cell phones equipped with special receivers. Both AT&T and Verizon offer MediaFLO services and handsets. MediaFLO is available in 65 U.S. markets already, but it can't go nationwide until analog TV stations on Channels 54 through 56 go off the air, he wrote. Qualcomm plans to turn on 100 more transmitters on Feb. 18 to bring MediaFLO to 15 new markets and expand services in 25 others.

"We believe that it would be unfair, unjust, and inappropriate to delay the DTV transition beyond February 17, 2009," Jacobs told the lawmakers. Qualcomm does support legislation to help deliver enough coupons for converter boxes to Americans who are still using traditional analog TV sets, Jacobs wrote. He noted that Qualcomm has aired thousands of public service announcements alerting consumers to the digital TV transition, ironically over the cutting-edge MediaFLO digital broadcasting service.

If the general deadline is pushed back, Qualcomm wants the government to force stations in four select markets, where the bulk of the 40 million added potential users live, to abide by the Feb. 17 date. Those nine analog stations in the San Francisco, Houston, Boston and Miami areas would interfere with the company's next planned expansion, according to Qualcomm.

One of the broadcasters that would be singled out by Qualcomm's proposal said it would comply with the law but its first concern is for viewers.

"We are prepared for the digital transition, from a technical standpoint, but I think the big question in the air is, is the public prepared?" said Scott Walton, executive director of communications at Northern California Public Broadcasting, which operates KTEH, Channel 55, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

An early milestone in the DTV transition took place last Thursday when stations in Hawaii were required to shut down their analog transmissions. That transition went relatively smoothly, according to published reports, though relatively few Hawaii residents rely on over-the-air TV because of high cable penetration there.

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