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FCC bureau proposes setting 2009 deadline for DTV transition

WASHINGTON-In a move expected to make spectrum available to commercial operators sooner, the FCC’s Media Bureau is proposing to move the digital TV transition date back to 2009.

The proposal aims to get at the current 85-percent threshold, which says that broadcasters must give back their analog spectrum Jan. 1, 2007, or when 85 percent of the homes in their license areas can receive digital signals.

The current estimates are that it will be at least the next decade before most markets reach that threshold if the Federal Communications Commission counts only homes with either a DTV or digital set-top box.

The Media Bureau proposal gets at the heart of the relationship between broadcasters and cable operators. It would allow broadcasters in October 2008 to elect to have their entire digital signals carried by cable operators instead of the current rule, which requires cable operators to carry only broadcasters’ analog signals. The cable company then would choose whether to broadcast only in digital and require its customers to obtain (either through purchase or giveaway) a digital set-top box or to download the broadcaster’s digital signal into an analog signal.

Either way, the broadcaster would be broadcasting in digital and “85 percent” of the homes in its market would be capable of receiving a digital signal, and the broadcaster would be required to give back its analog signal as of Jan. 1, 2009.

In other words, commercial wireless carriers, which have long coveted the 700 MHz band, could purchase this spectrum at auction knowing they would have access to it in 2009.

Contrast that with the current situation where commercial wireless operators could buy spectrum at auction but never know when the broadcasters would move out. This uncertainty has led the wireless industry to get Congress to pass legislation to indefinitely postpone the 700 MHz band auction.

Mobile-phone operators have often asked who would buy a house if there was no guarantee that the current occupants would move out.

The Media Bureau has briefed each of the five FCC members at least once on this issue, said Media Bureau Chief Ken Ferree at a press briefing Wednesday. Once he has the “thumbs up from three or more” of the commissioners, he will direct the Media Bureau to begin writing the rules. There are two open proceedings-digital must carry and the DTV periodic review-which means this change to 2009 could be done without putting the Media Bureau’s idea out for comment.

Putting it out for comment is likely dangerous because the broadcasters are not warm to any proposal that would mean giving up their analog spectrum, said Ferree.

“They would rather eat their children than give up their spectrum,” said Ferree. “They will hold onto this spectrum until their dying date. I don’t blame them.”

The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association seems warm to any idea that will spur the DTV transition.

“The 700 MHz band is being used for ‘Cops’ re-runs, when those airwaves should be put in the hands of real cops in the field. The broadcasters, who have dragged their feet on this transition, are the bad boys of spectrum policy, and clearing them from this spectrum as soon as possible to make room for public safety is the right thing to do,” said CTIA spokesman Travis Larson.

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