Flipping the switch

B'casters agree to a hard digital deadline

WASHINGTON — Bowing to the growing political reality, broadcasters said Tuesday they’re willing to accept a firm date for switching off their analog signals and returning that spectrum to the government, but they want the feds to require cable operators to carry multiple digital channels instead of just one.

To sweeten the pot further, broadcasters also agreed for the first time to accept a public-service requirement as part of an overall digital TV deal.

At a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy Eddie Fritts said his members would agree to a so-called hard date of Dec. 31, 2008, “or sometime in 2009,” for the complete conversion to digital.

Previously, broadcasters had insisted on sticking to Congress’ original formula of not pulling the plug on analog until 85% of U.S. households were equipped to receive digital TV signals.

With that threshold looking increasingly far off, however, lawmakers have grown restless. Last month, Commerce Committee member Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill that called for final analog cutoff at the end of 2008. A similar bill, written by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), has been circulated in draft form in the House.

“Our board met three weeks ago and agreed to accept a hard date without the 85%,” Fritts said Tuesday. “That’s the position we’re now supporting.”

Fritts’ declaration brought a rare meeting of minds among broadcasters, cable operators, satcasters and TV setmakers, all of whom were represented at the hearing and all of whom endorsed a 2008 or 2009 cutoff.

While broadcasters sought to portray their endorsement of a hard cutoff as a public-spirited gesture, it was mostly an acknowledgment of political reality.

With lawmakers increasingly keen to use the old analog broadcast spectrum to improve communications among emergency response orgs and to bolster new wireless services, the likelihood that Congress will set a firm date for the return of the spectrum has increased.

McCain, in particular, has been harshly critical of the broadcast industry for slowing the digital transition and depriving “first responders” of needed spectrum.

In Tuesday’s hearing, he noted that emergency workers in London were unable to communicate effectively following last week’s terrorist bombings, resulting in initial confusion on the scene. Similar problems were blamed for the deaths of hundreds of New York firefighters on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I’m not sure America can wait to the end of 2008 or 2009 for first responders to get that spectrum,” McCain said. “I want to know, when can we have that spectrum back so it can be used to save lives?”

Other senators stressed the need to extend wireless broadband service to rural areas that are not well served by high-speed cable or DSL lines from the telcos.

During a break in the hearing committee chairman Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) told reporters the deadline should be set for sometime in 2009.

Another contentious issue concerned the need to provide government subsidies for consumers dependent on over-the-air signals to purchase digital-to-analog converter boxes after analog signals are turned off.

Broadcasters, cable operators and setmakers at the hearing clashed over how many consumers would be affected and how many would need to be subsidized.

National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. chief Kyle McSlarrow suggested for the first time that cable customers would be entitled to subsidies to purchase upgraded digital cable boxes if over-the-air households also received government money.

“There’s no principled reason why you would subsidize over-the-air customers and not cable customers,” McSlarrow said.

That would raise the price of the subsidy significantly by adding tens of millions of households to the list of possible recipients.