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Television Wasteland

Congress solidifies the transition to digital TV, ushering in a new era for the public's spectrum.

by / March 30, 2006
Police and firefighters now must wait three more years for vital extra spectrum while broadcasters sluggishly exit the public airwaves.

In late December 2005, the House and Senate agreed to extend broadcasters' digital transmission switchover deadline from Dec. 31, 2006 to Feb. 17, 2009, acknowledging that the majority would certainly miss the prior deadline. The legislation was part of a $40 billion deficit reduction bill. Federal lawmakers are eager to collect revenue estimated at more than $10 billion from auctioning part of the 408 MHz TV spectrum band to telecommunications companies.

Firefighters, police and other emergency first responders will receive 24 MHz of spectrum to improve communications, especially needed for large-scale rescues. They frequently crowded each other on the airwaves during the 9/11 rescue and Hurricane Katrina.

First Responders Wait
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., made a failed attempt in November 2005 to move the digital TV deadline up to 2008.

"Here we are [for] our first responders, the brave men and women who put their lives on the line in defense of the lives of their fellow citizens, who have already given their lives, who have performed so magnificently, who want to be able to talk to each other, who want the spectrum freed up," McCain said on the Senate floor. "And what do we do here in Congress? We delay it as long as possible. It is disgraceful conduct on our part."

Yucel Ors, spokesman for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, said the first responders' 24 MHz of spectrum would allow them interoperability channels, enabling communications systems from multiple responder jurisdictions to interact with each other.

Interoperability channels also would allow firefighters to communicate with police, making a more cohesive operation between types of rescuers.

"There are designated interoperability channels within the 24 MHz, so as more systems fill up, interoperability becomes easier when you're sending first responders to the scene from other agencies, if they have 700 or 800 radios," Ors said.

Ron Haraseth, director of APCO International's automated frequency coordination division, said the added spectrum for first responders would facilitate many technology upgrades.

"There are a lot of digital things we can do that we haven't been able to do in public safety, because we haven't had any bandwidth to apply any of [them to] the exiting land mobile radio band," he said, adding that the bandwidth-crowding problems are dire for responders in urban areas.

"There are some places where all the frequency bands are totally congested -- New York, New Jersey, the major cities anywhere in the country," he said. "It is almost impossible to find any usable channel in any of those areas."

The crowding comes from hundreds of responders using the bandwidth at any given time, and the higher number of TV broadcasters typically found on the bandwidth in metropolitan areas.

Congress first promised to shift 24 MHz from broadcasters to first responders with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, but held that a jurisdiction couldn't receive it until 85 percent of viewers within its city owned digital TVs.

"We've had the 24 MHz allocation for several years now, but we can't access it, because they still have TV stations on it. That's why we've been so adamant about pushing for a definite deadline [to] transition [broadcasters] off those channels," Haraseth said.

The new 2009 deadline eliminates the 85 percent digital TV requirement by subsidizing digital converters.

Even when first responders get their 24 MHz of spectrum, they'll face a separate battle over funding the more advanced communication systems designed to take advantage of the new airspace.

Haraseth said the Department of Homeland Security is offering grants to jurisdictions that purchase systems capable of using interoperability channels. Still, the funds for purchasing these systems mostly come from local governments. Policymakers typically overlook communication system purchases as basic, required steps for maintaining government, according to Haraseth.

Telecommunication Waits
Critics argue that the digital TV transition amounts to the government taking property by making perfectly good analog televisions useless. But one could instead argue that citizens are trading property -- gaining an extra $10 billion in public funds in exchange for their normal analog TV functionality. Citizens also gain whatever the market produces as a result of auctioning the spectrum.

Since 85 percent to 90 percent of consumers have opted for satellite or cable television, completely eliminating over-the-air TV transmission for even more telecommunications use would better benefit all Americans, said Thomas Hazlett, director of the Information Economy Project at the National Center for Technology and Law.

The FCC sold some spectrum to cellular phone providers in the early 1990s, which increased competition on the market from two cell phone companies to seven -- prices nosedived and revolutionized how parents tracked their children.

Blair Levin, telecommunications analyst for Stifel Nicolaus, a Washington-based think tank, said freeing up spectrum would bring consumers more and better wireless telephone service. More companies owning spectrum and competing in the market will further reduce prices and improve service quality, according to Levin.

"The spectrum being sold travels farther with less power, and it goes through walls better," he said.

But the central vehicle using added spectrum for advancing telecommunications would be wireless broadband, Levin said. "Once you have broadband, you can have video, you can have voice, you can have an infinite number of different things."

Broadband uses spectrum bandwidth to simultaneously transmit a wide range of media -- like video and audio -- at a much higher quality than normally received online.

The word "interactive" is a popular principle attached to today's media consumption. Consumers want control over how they receive media. Music listeners arrange their music on computer play-lists, and digital video recorders (DVRs) are rapidly becoming standard household tools, empowering television viewers to control when they watch programs.

Pre-Empting Revolt
To receive digital signals, a viewer needs a costly new digital TV set, and most consumers haven't upgraded. High-definition TV (HDTV) is digital TV's most dramatic lure, but it currently offers limited programming choices.

Lawmakers and pay TV companies pre-empted a consumer revolt by stopping broadcast channels from going dark on Feb. 17, 2009. Cable and satellite providers will convert broadcasters' digital signals to analog format before transmitting them to viewers. In addition, the House and Senate agreed to spend as much as $1.5 billion on vouchers to help consumers purchase digital converter boxes, typically costing $60 each.

Analysts estimate that 20 million households rely exclusively on over-the-air TV, and are in danger of going dark without converter boxes.

The converter box subsidies prompted catcalls from conservatives incensed over cable and satellite subscribers having to purchase converter boxes for citizens who chose not to pay for TV. Some cried that there was no constitutional right to TV, and others lamented Congress subsidizing TV habits while cutting the rates in growth of student loans and Medicare.

Congress recognized the political danger of eliminating anyone's TV, and to protect itself, sacrificed $1.5 billion of the estimated $10 billion revenue from auctioning off the spectrum.

The Consumer's Union wasn't satiated, demanding $3.5 billion for digital converter boxes, saying the current amount is insufficient to convert the roughly 70 million over-the-air analog TVs owned in America.

"[The legislation] provides only a fraction of the funds needed to compensate consumers for the costs of a digital transition they never asked for," said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst for Consumers Union.

Terry Lane, spokesman for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said $1.5 billion was more than enough to supplement converter boxes for consumers truly needing them. The FCC estimates 16.1 million American households are exclusively over-the-air analog, owning roughly 20 million TVs, and $1.5 billion is enough to convert roughly 30 million TVs, according to Lane.

"There may be 70 million over-the-air TVs, but many of those are second, third, fourth TVs -- TVs set up to video game systems, TVs in the kitchen, TVs hooked up to VCRs in houses that have satellite or cable," Lane said.

Consumers owning these appliances are eligible for vouchers, but unlikely to bother with the application process required for getting them, according to Lane.

Subsidizing the Past
Hazlett said it is foolish for the federal government to invest in over-the-air TV transmission when so few people still use it.

"We're subsidizing the wrong thing. If we're going to subsidize something, we ought to subsidize a switch where we completely get rid of over-the-air broadcasting," he said, adding that all broadcaster signals should be sent via more efficient delivery systems, like cable or satellite. Then you'll have a huge amount of bandwidth you can use for more valuable things."

Hazlett recommends a federal auction pitting cable and satellite providers against each other in a price war for subscribing the remaining 10 percent to 15 percent of American TV viewers still using over-the-air signals to government-funded pay TV.

The government would subsidize a basic cable type of setup, only offering a recipient's local broadcast channels. Competing providers would salivate over bidding the cheapest price because of the opportunity to sell upgraded programming packages to the recipients, according to Hazlett.

False Alarm
Public confusion erupted when Congress changed the conversion section of the deficit reduction bill, making it appear as if broadcaster channels would also go dark for cable and satellite subscribers watching their programming on analog sets.

The Senate eliminated a section of the bill that would have exempted cable and satellite providers from a federal law forbidding them from "degrading" a TV signal.

The Consumer's Union said the exemption's absence prohibited cable and satellite providers from down-converting digital signals to analog format. This supposedly meant broadcaster channels would go dark for pay TV subscribers not using digital TVs, which accounted for most of them.

Activists warned that millions couldn't watch the Super Bowl or other network programming if the law didn't change.

But the law only applied to broadcast stations claiming "must-carry" status. A small, low power broadcast station, like a religious or home shopping channel, typically claims must-carry status, meaning the FCC requires cable and satellite companies to carry it. A local affiliate for a national network -- like ABC, NBC or CBS -- claims retransmit and consent status, meaning no carriage requirements because cable and satellite providers already want their programming, and broadcasters use that to negotiate compensation from pay TV providers for carriage rights.

Lane said legal precedent holds that changing a digital signal to analog format doesn't constitute "degradation" because it doesn't make the TV picture look different.

Federal regulations only prohibit a cable company from down-converting a must-carry station's HDTV signal to analog format. This means that theoretically, if a must-carry station broadcasted in HDTV, cable and satellite companies couldn't transmit the signal to their analog TV customers.

Paul Rodriguez, spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), said that would be unlikely.

"The odds of [must-carry] stations doing a high-definition signal are very slim," Rodriguez said.

The Remaining Conflict
Broadcasters see multicasting as a way to benefit from the digital switchover, and they want to make sure all cable subscribers have access to their multicast channels. Digital TV transmission compresses a signal, enabling stations to stream up to six channels, simultaneously, in the space of a single transmission, which uses 6 MHz. By multicasting, a local WB affiliate might additionally offer a local 24-hour news channel, a religious channel, a music channel and so forth.

Congress rejected the broadcasters' lobbying efforts at adding a multicast channel carriage requirement for cable and satellite providers to the digital deadline section of the deficit reduction bill.

Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), said the organization hadn't decided its next legislative plan to enforce requirements.

"For our stations and our investors to invest in [multicast channels], they want an assurance that most viewers are going to have access to that programming," Wharton said. "If the cable operator decides, 'Hey, I don't want a 24-hour, free, over-the-air news service to compete with my cable news service, which goes by the name of CNN,' then the likelihood of investors investing in that expensive [multicast] programming is less.

"There is a reason why Time Warner actively opposes [multicast must-carry requirements], spending millions of dollars to defeat [it]," Wharton added.

The NAB says cable companies have no reason to exclude a multicast channel, because, with digital technology, a broadcaster's total sum of multicast channels would take up the same amount of space on a cable company's dial as a single analog channel -- 6 MHz.

Must-carry multicast requirements would only give cable and satellite subscribers more choices, according to the NAB.

But carrying a broadcaster's multicast channels would take up more than 6 MHz on the cable dial, according to the NCTA. The organization says once a cable company down-converts a multicast channel, making it viewable on a cable customer's analog TV set, that multicast channel independently takes up the normal 6 MHz.

In other words, a broadcaster could send six multicast channels using 6 MHz of spectrum to a cable provider, but that provider would need 24 MHz worth of space on its dial to send them to its analog TV customers. For cable and satellite customers watching analog TVs, hundreds of extra required multicast channels would squeeze out cable channels customers actually demanded through their voluntary viewing habits, according to the NCTA.

"The guys that really hate 'must-carry' are the marginal cable networks that get pushed off," Hazlett said. "C-Span networks hate 'must-carry' because it's basically a property right that they are issuing to broadcasters for the cable capacity, and the actual cable programmers are backed up. If you're in San Francisco, where there's something like 23 local channels, and each one of the local channels has six multicast broadcasts with multicast must-carry, the first 138 channels on the cable system would go to the broadcasters."

Wharton rejected the NCTA's argument about cable and satellite companies having to down-convert multicast signals, but declined to elaborate.

The NCTA says it accepts the community-minded principle of carriage requirements for local stations, but said requiring carriage of every multicast channel in the country goes too far.

"Under certain circumstances, we'd certainly be willing to carry multicast signals," Rodriguez said. "We don't think it's right for the government to mandate us to do that."

The NCTA says cable does carry multicast stations where the public demands them, but multicast channels should have to compete for space on the cable dial, just like other channels.

As 2009 makes way for wireless broadband and its resulting media and telecommunications marvels, entrenched industries diversify services and brace themselves for the new spectrum era.

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Andy Opsahl

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.

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