Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Switchover One-Year Recap: Government

When I started this blog, I opened with a series of posts called "The Players", where I identified what I considered to be the main actors in the unfolding drama of the DTV transition. Since then, I've done twelve monthly recaps (since I'm counting down to 2/17/09, my "month" runs from the 18th to the following 17th) tracking the changes involving each group (The Public, Government, Broadcasting, Program Providers, HD Networks, and Manufacturers - retail being thrown in with Manufacturers). This series will look at what's happened over the course of those twelve months, and ask a longer-term version of the question I ask in every monthly recap - what's changed? (NOTE: This series does not replace my next monthly recap, though it will probably make it even later than it usually is.)

In the beginning, I was wondering if there would be much to write about:
You can make a case for the notion that government's role in this process is just about done. After all, the "hard" date to end analog broadcasting is already set, as well the mandates for inclusion of digital tuners in all TVs (that have any tuner in the first place).

But it turns out that there are plenty of other questions involved. Not the least of which is whether the "hard" date is as much of a done deal as we think. While the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen has used some differences in House and Senate language in another section of the larger Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (which contained the analog cutoff provisions) as a pretext for a lawsuit intended to overturn the entire DRA, any significant challenge to the cutoff is more likely to emerge from the political process. As I point out in my in-progress monthly recap, if even 8% of Americans are left out on The Day, that makes 24 million people, who cannot reasonably be expected to take this with good grace. They may not do much direct appealing to their representatives about a problem they're not yet aware of, but a number of those representatives have already begun to worry about it on their behalf, like Rep. John Dingell (D-Michigan), who with the November election became the new head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He has expressed concern about weaknesses in the National Telecommunications & Information Administration's converter box program, and underscored that with a letter sent to NTIA head John Kneuer, making the point that the deadline could indeed be derailed if the converter-box program is not made more consumer-friendly, or if the public is not better informed. While I don't expect it to come to that, I do expect political pressure to build for more aggressive Government action. That's not a bad thing, considering that the NTIA seems to have no backup plan to deal with massive loss of reception on that day.

By the way, there actually was an attempt made to make an exception to the deadline (a two-year extension, to 2/17/11) for Spanish-language stations within 50 miles of the border, but it didn't go anywhere (last year, anyway). It was part of the big telecom reform bill S.2686 (the "Communications, Consumers' Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006"), which did not pass (see below for more on what was covered in this bill). Gary Shapiro of the CEA was concerned enough about the provision to write this letter to an unnamed Senator. It'll be interesting to see if it makes it into the next round of telecom legislation.

Assuming for the moment that the transition does go through on schedule, what kind of additional Government actions might we see? So far, we've already seen three House Republicans introduce a bill designed to force broadcasters to provide reports to the FCC on their consumer-education efforts, and to also mandate that the FCC inform Congress (but which fails to provide additional funding or a specific plan, and mandates warning labels on analog TVs, which are no longer being made). The bill (H.R. 608, introduced on 1/22/07) was referred to the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet on February 2nd. The FCC itself is asking for $1.5 million in its 2008 budget for a DTV education campaign, which strikes me as just a bit insufficient to the task (so expect education funds to get some Congressional attention).

For now, the major government initiative on the schedule is the above-mentioned converter box program, and given the concerns expressed above this is another likely candidate for congressional action. For a glimpse of what might be considered, check out this list of suggestions from various manufacturers and industry groups. Until then, the program is as described here (two $40 coupons per household, first $990 million without restrictions, up to an additional $510 million but only for over-the-air households).

But cable viewers have their own set of issues to deal with. How to get digital broadcast signals to analog-only cable viewers (with or without a box)? This is where the whole issue of downconversion comes in. FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin pointed out last April that failure by cable systems to deliver local broadcast signals to all subscribers might be a violation of the Communications Act of 1992.

So how to do that? One possibility is to eliminate analog cable altogether and force everyone to get a digital box, but there seems to be little will to do that - even Comcast's Chicago experiment (more on that in my next monthly update) will allow a small set of analog channels for the boxless, and my 5/24/06 post details cable's plans to support limited analog for years to come. This is where the whole issue of downconversion comes in, and broadcasters and cablecos have very different perspectives on the matter. Current law does not allow for either digital/analog conversion or the downgrading of HD to standard DTV, but the previously mentioned telecom reform bill S.2686 would have allowed both. While broadcasters have dropped early opposition to the former (since it keeps their signals available to "legacy" customers in the same way the converter box would), both individual stations and the NAB strenuously oppose the latter. At first I could not understand the concern (as it would appear to be business suicide to piss off HD customers in this way), but the second linked article sheds some light on situations (such as multicast must-carry) where cablecos might feel the need to manage finite bandwidth in this way. The debate was going on as late as October, but in the end S.2686 died, so this will all need to be gone over again when the next bill of this type is introduced.

Also related (though not mandated at this point) to the transition is the issue of multicasting, a new situation created by the ability of broadcasters to pack multiple program streams into their digital channel. At one point, he FCC scheduled a meeting for 06/21/06 to impose multicast must-carry, but then never followed through, for whatever reason.

Less directly related is the franchising issue. This normally gets written about in the PROGRAM PROVIDERS section, but it certainly has a governmental component. There's been significant pressure to break the cable monopoly on wired access to viewer's homes (usually from the people who already have other wires there, namely the telcos). There was an attempt to replace the cumbersome community-by-community licensing process with national franchising via the COPE act (which passed the House). Unfortunately for the telco services such as Verizon FiOS and AT&T's U-Verse, the Senate version of this was in S.2686, so this was another idea that came to nothing last year. However, there's been a lot of action on the state front. While Verizon's efforts to get statewide franchising in Pennsylvania fell through, they had much better luck in California and New Jersey. And recently the FCC released an order giving local communities just 90 days to approve or reject telco franchising requests (provided they already have facilities in the city), arousing opposition from both the American Cable Association and the National League of Cities, whose members' authority over provision of video services in their cities would be greatly diminished.

With unresolved issues concerning governmental management of the transition, downconversion, etc., it looks like there'll be plenty to recap this time next year.

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