The Transition To Digital Television: Is America Ready?

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The Transition to Digital Television: IsAmerica Ready?Lennard G. KrugerSpecialist in Science and Technology PolicyMay 14, 2009Congressional Research Service7-5700www.crs.govRL34165CRS Report for CongressPrepared for Members and Committees of Congress

The Transition to Digital Television: Is America Ready?SummaryThe Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-171), as amended by the DTV Delay Act, directsthat on June 12, 2009, all over-the-air full-power television broadcasts—which are currentlyprovided by television stations in both analog and digital formats—will become digital only.Digital television (DTV) technology allows a broadcaster to offer a single program stream of highdefinition television (HDTV), or alternatively, multiple video program streams (multicasts).Households with over-the-air analog-only televisions will no longer be able to receive full-powertelevision service unless they either: (1) buy a digital-to-analog converter box to hook up to theiranalog television set; (2) acquire a digital television or an analog television equipped with adigital tuner; or (3) subscribe to cable, satellite, or telephone company television services, whichwill likely provide for the conversion of digital signals to their analog customers.The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 established a digital-to-analog converter box program—administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of theDepartment of Commerce—that partially subsidizes consumer purchases of converter boxes.NTIA provides up to two forty-dollar coupons to requesting U.S. households. The coupons arebeing issued between January 1, 2008, and July 31, 2009, and must be used within 90 days afterissuance towards the purchase of a stand-alone device used solely for digital-to-analogconversion. The DTV Delay Act allows expired coupons to be replaced.The preeminent goal for Congress is ensuring that American households are prepared for theDTV transition deadline, thereby minimizing a scenario where television sets across the nation“go dark.” At issue is whether the federal government’s current programs and reliance on privatesector stakeholders will lead to a successful digital transition with a minimum amount ofdisruption to American TV households.On January 8, 2009, then-President-elect Obama’s transition team asked leaders of the House andSenate Commerce Committees to consider postponing the digital transition date, citing thecurrent unavailability of converter box coupons and what they viewed as insufficient federalsupport and education efforts to ensure that the most vulnerable populations are ready for thetransition. Proposals for postponing the transition date were sparked by the announcement fromNTIA on January 5, 2009, that the funding ceiling for converter box coupons had been reached,that all new requests would be put on a waiting list, and that growing numbers of householdswould not receive their coupons in time for the February 17 transition.Consequently, concerns arose in Congress that further legislation would be necessary to ensure, tothe extent possible, a successful digital transition with a minimum amount of disruption toAmerican TV households. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (P.L. 111-5),signed by the President on February 17, 2009, contains an appropriation of 650 million to NTIAfor the DTV coupon program. Meanwhile, on February 11, 2009, the DTV Delay Act (P.L. 1114), which changes the digital transition deadline from February 17 to June 12, 2009, was signedby the President. Despite the extended deadline, hundreds of full-power television broadcaststations, having notified the FCC, ceased their analog service on February 17.Congressional Research Service

The Transition to Digital Television: Is America Ready?ContentsIntroduction .1DTV Delay Act .1Senate.2House .3P.L. 111-4.3Early Termination of Analog Signal.4Impacts on February 17, 2009 .4What Is Digital Television? .5Why Is the Nation Transitioning to Digital Television?.5Who Is Likely to be Most Affected by the Transition? .6How Will the Digital Transition Affect Cable and Satellite Households?.8The Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Program .8Supply of Coupons. 10Converter Box Supply. 10Coupon Expiration . 11Coupon Eligibility. 11Reception of Digital Signals. 12Status of DTV Public Education. 14NTIA Funding and Activities . 14FCC Funding and Activities . 15Role of the Private Sector. 17Key Issues . 18TablesTable 1. Readiness of U.S. Households for the Digital Transition.6Table E-1. DTV Hearings Held in the 110th and 111th Congresses . 25AppendixesAppendix A. DTV Test Pilot Program in Wilmington, North Carolina . 19Appendix B. Short-Term Analog Flash and Emergency Readiness Act . 21Appendix C. DTV Border Fix Act . 22Appendix D. Low-Power Television and the Digital Transition. 23Appendix E. Legislation and Hearings in the 110th and 111th Congresses . 25Appendix F. Sources for Further Information . 28Congressional Research Service

The Transition to Digital Television: Is America Ready?ContactsAuthor Contact Information . 28Congressional Research Service

The Transition to Digital Television: Is America Ready?IntroductionAfter June 12, 2009, households with over-the-air analog-only televisions will no longer be ableto receive full-power television service unless they either (1) buy a digital-to-analog converter boxto hook up to their analog television set; (2) acquire a digital television or an analog televisionequipped with a digital tuner;1 or (3) subscribe to cable, satellite, or telephone company televisionservices, which are expected to provide for the conversion of digital signals to their analogcustomers. The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-171), as amended by the DTV Delay Act,directs that on June 12, 2009, over-the-air full-power television broadcasts—which are currentlyprovided by television stations in both analog and digital formats—will become digital only. 2Analog broadcast television signals, which have been broadcast for over 60 years, will cease, andfull-power television stations will broadcast exclusively digital signals over channels 2 through51.The preeminent issue for Congress is ensuring that American households are prepared for thetransition, thereby minimizing a scenario whereby television sets across the nation “go dark” onJune 12, 2009. Specifically, Congress is actively overseeing the activities of federal agenciesresponsible for the digital transition—principally the Federal Communications Commission(FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)—whileassessing whether additional federal efforts are necessary. The Congress is also monitoring theextent to which private sector stakeholders take appropriate and sufficient steps to educate thepublic and ensure that all Americans are prepared for the digital transition.DTV Delay ActOn January 8, 2009, then-President-elect Obama’s transition team asked leaders of the House andSenate Commerce Committees to consider postponing the digital transition date, citing theunavailability of converter box coupons and what they viewed as insufficient federal support andeducation efforts to ensure that the most vulnerable populations are ready for the transition.3Arguments for postponing the transition date, possibly by several months,4 were sparked by anannouncement from NTIA on January 5, 2009 that the funding ceiling for converter box couponshad been reached, that all new requests would be put on a waiting list, and that growing numbers1As of March 1, 2007, all analog televisions manufactured, imported, or shipped across state lines are required to havea built-in digital tuner, and will therefore not require a converter box. Retailers are permitted to sell analog-only devicesfrom existing inventory, but are required by the FCC to display a “consumer alert” label explaining that the device willrequire a converter box in order to receive over-the-air television signals after the transition.2The June 12, 2009, deadline applies only to full-power television stations. Low-power television stations, includingClass A stations and translator stations, will transition to digital broadcasting at a date yet to be determined by the FCC.3Letter from John Podesta, Co-Chair, Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team to Chairmen and Ranking Membersof Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and House Committee on Energy and Commerce,January 8, 2009. Available at http://change.gov/page/-/images/20090109 Podesta DTV letter.pdf4Eggerton, John, Broadcasting & Cable, “Markey: Feb. 17 Date May Have to Move,” January 7, 2009. Also see lettersto Members of Congress from Consumers Union arguing for a postponement of the transition deadline, available athttp://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core telecom and utilities/006502.html.Congressional Research Service1

The Transition to Digital Television: Is America Ready?of households would not receive their coupons in time for the deadline of February 17. Groupsalso expressed concerns over the sufficiency of the FCC’s DTV call center efforts.5Postponing the DTV transition date was supported by numerous entities, many of whom arguedthat a delay would provide the extra time needed to enable sufficient additional federal resourcesto be directed towards helping households prepare for the transition. A few additional months,they argued, would enable Congress to adequately fund the coupon program and ensure that allrequesting households would receive coupons in advance of the transition date. A delay wouldalso allow more resources to be directed towards public outreach and education efforts (includingenhanced call centers), and provide consumers and broadcasters with more time to address localDT V signal reception issues. On January 16, 2009, Democratic FCC Commissioners wrote aletter to Congressional leaders supporting a delay, arguing that FCC efforts to prepare for thedigital transition have been inadequate, and that factors such as coordination, consumereducation, reception issues, and call center support might be ameliorated with the extra timeoffered by a delay. 6Opponents of delaying the transition7 argued that changing the date would sow confusionthroughout the American public, who had been long exposed to a wide variety of outreach efforts(public service announcements, flyers, billboards, etc.) reiterating the February 17 transition date.Opponents also argued that delaying the date would be a hardship for many local broadcaststations, who would bear the added expense and logistical complications of operating andmaintaining their analog signals for several more months. Additionally, opponents argued, a DTVtransition date delay could disrupt plans to use the vacated analog spectrum for a variety of publicsafety and commercial wireless services. On January 14, 2009, then-Secretary of CommerceCarlos Gutierrez wrote Congressional leaders a letter opposing the delay and recommending thatCongress give NTIA 250 million in increased budget authority, which would enable theimmediate distribution of coupons.8SenateOn January 15, 2009, Senator Rockefeller, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce,Science, and Transportation filed a bill that would delay the digital transition until June 12, 2009,and extend the deadline for coupon applications (from March 31 to July 31, 2009).9 On January16, 2009, there was a unanimous consent request for the Senate to immediately consider the bill.5See January 8, 2009 letters to Members of Congress from Consumers Union arguing for a postponement of thetransition deadline, available at http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core telecom and utilities/006502.html.6See letter from FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein to Chairmen and Ranking MinorityMembers of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science andTransportation, January 16, 2009. Available at http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs public/attachmatch/DOC-287974A1.pdf.7See letter from Hon. Joe Barton, Ranking Member, House Energy and Commerce Committee and 14 HouseRepublicans to President-elect Obama, January 14, 2009, available at File/News/1.14.09 Barton DTV Letter to Obama.PDF.Also see Press Release, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce,Science and Transportation, “Senator Hutchison: Too Early to Call for DTV Delay,” January 8, 2009. Available Action PressReleases.Detail&PressRelease id 70978a3d-8d724faf-99e2-e586b8c86e7b&Month 1&Year 2009.8Letter is available at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/.9Press Release, “Rockefeller Files DTV Delay Bill,” January 15, 2009. Available at http://rockefeller.senate.gov/press/record.cfm?id 306824&.Congressional Research Service2

The Transition to Digital Television: Is America Ready?However, the unanimous consent request was withdrawn due to the understanding that therewould be an objection. Democratic and Republican Senators subsequently reached agreement onrevised legislative language, and on January 27, 2009, the Senate passed the DTV Delay Act (S.328) by unanimous consent. However the House failed in its attempt to pass S. 328 undersuspension of the rules (2/3 vote required).On January 29, 2009 the Senate again passed, by unanimous consent, a slightly revised version ofthe DTV Delay Act (S. 352). The revisions match modifications made by the House, namely thatpublic safety users would not have to await FCC approval in order to use vacated analogspectrum, and that modifications of the coupon program (including clearing the waiting list ofcoupon requests) could not proceed until additional budget authority was made available(expected from the 650 million for the DTV coupon program in the economic stimuluspackage).HouseOn January 28, 2009, the House considered Senate-passed S. 328 under suspension of the rules.However, the motion to suspend the rules and pass the bill as amended failed by a vote of 258168 (a 2/3 vote necessary to pass). Subsequently, on January 29, 2009 the Senate passed byunanimous consent S. 352, a modified version of S. 328 that matches the attempted Houseamendment that was not passed under the suspension. The House passed S. 352 on February 4,2009.P.L. 111-4S. 352 was signed by the President on February 11, 2009 (P.L. 111-4). The law changes thedigital transition deadline from February 17 to June 12, 2009. P.L. 111-4 also includes thefollowing provisions: Extension of coupon program—moves the deadline for coupon applicationsfrom March 31, 2009, to July 31, 2009; removes requirement that coupons besent via the U.S. Postal Service. Treatment of expired coupons—allows households whose coupons haveexpired to request and receive one replacement coupon for each expired coupon; Condition of coupon box program modifications – program modificationscannot proceed until enactment of additional budget authority to carry out theanalog-to-digital converter box program; Permissive early termination under existing requirements—allowsbroadcasters, as long as they comply with existing FCC requirements, to switchoff their analog signal and go exclusively digital before the new deadline; Public safety radio services—allows public safety service licensees to usevacated and available analog spectrum before June 12, 2009, subject to relevantFCC rules and regulations; Extension of license terms – extends license period of recovered analogspectrum by 116 days; and Extension of auction authority – extends FCC auction authority through 2012.Congressional Research Service3

The Transition to Digital Television: Is America Ready?P.L. 111-4 contains a provision specifying that modifications of the coupon program – whichwould include clearing the waiting list of coupon requests—cannot proceed until additionalbudget authority is made available. Additional budget authority has been obtained from the 650million appropriated for the DTV coupon program in the American Recovery and ReinvestmentAct (P.L. 111-5), signed by the President on February 17, 2009. Of the 650 million, P.L. 111-5includes 90 million for education and outreach to vulnerable populations. Outreach funding maybe transferred to the FCC, at the discretion of the Secretary of Commerce and with notification ofthe House and Senate Appropriations Committees.Early Termination of Analog SignalWhile the DTV Delay Act postpones the digital transition deadline to June 12, 2009, many fullpower television stations have already terminated their analog signal, either before or on February17, 2009. P.L. 111-4 allows broadcasters to turn off their analog signals before the June 12deadline, provided they give sufficient prior notification to the FCC and to their customers, andprovided that the FCC determines that early termination is not contrary to the public interest andthat those stations who would switch from a pre-transition digital channel to a different posttransition digital channel will not create interference problems.The FCC has announced that 417 stations terminated their analog service on February 17. Alongwith the 220 stations that had already terminated their an

The Transition to Digital Television: Is America Ready? Congressional Research Service 1 Introduction After June 12, 2009, households with over-the-air analog-only televisions will no longer be able to receive full-power television service unless they either (1) buy a digital-to-analog converter box to hook up to their analog television set; (2) acquire a digital television or an analog television

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