Industry on Right Path for Smooth DTV Switch

Posted October 21, 2007 at 11:00pm

In February 2006, President Bush signed into law legislation that designates midnight on Feb. 17, 2009, as the date to complete the transition from analog to digital television broadcasting. Digital television is an innovative new type of over-the-air broadcasting technology that enables TV stations to provide dramatically clearer pictures and better sound quality. The transition from analog to digital television represents the most significant advancement of television technology since color TV was introduced decades ago.

Who will be affected once the proverbial switch is flipped? Cable, satellite and telephone companies will take steps to continue providing service for their television subscribers. These consumers will not be noticeably impacted by the DTV transition. The cable and broadcast industries already have stepped up to the plate to help educate the public about the DTV transition, with still more than a year to go, by introducing public education campaigns that will total nearly $1 billion. It is comforting to know that the industry understands the critical importance of educating Americans on this issue so that a seamless transition can take place in February 2009.

The fact remains, it is in the financial interest of the broadcasters, pay television companies, manufacturers and retailers to make sure each TV viewing household knows about the DTV transition. The last thing the industry wants is to lose viewers. I’m confident they will do everything necessary to ensure this does not happen.

Only the small number of folks who currently receive free broadcast television programming using an analog television set and an over-the-air antenna will need to purchase a DTV converter box to continue to receive service — currently this is estimated to be just 13 percent of the TV viewing households. These boxes will be available in early 2008 and will improve the picture of even old television sets. Congress also set aside funds for consumers who want help covering the cost of the converter boxes, and the government will issue each household up to two, $40 converter box coupons upon request, also starting in early 2008. (More information about the DTV transition and the converter box coupon program is available at dtv.gov and www.ntia.doc.gov.)

Not only will the nation’s consumers benefit, our nation’s taxpayers also will benefit as the sale of the spectrum currently occupied by the nation’s broadcasters is expected to generate billions of dollars to pay down the debt. But most importantly, with the transition to digital, our nation’s first responders finally will have access to the additional spectrum they need to communicate in times of emergency.

On that cold day in February 2006 when Bush signed the legislation into law that set the date for the transition to DTV, we also paved the way for broadcasters to clear spectrum for interoperable public safety communications. I was especially pleased that the new law included my amendment creating a $1 billion federal grant program, paid for by spectrum auction sales to the private sector, which soon will provide public safety much-needed resources to improve interoperability using the additional spectrum the law gives them.

During any disastrous event, it is our nation’s first responders who answer the call of duty and rush into harm’s way, putting their lives on the line. In order for first responders to do their job, they must be able to communicate with one another, not just fire, police and EMS within one jurisdiction, but also among local, state and federal jurisdictions.

We have been working over the past decade to provide our first responders with the vital capability to communicate interoperably, and our efforts are finally coming to fruition.

We have witnessed many painful events over the past decade that highlighted the critical need for interoperable communications. But we have made great progress, and soon public safety will have access to the 24 megahertz of spectrum they were promised and so desperately deserve.

The 9/11 commission understood the importance of ensuring that our first responders have the equipment and spectrum necessary to communicate in times of emergency. I’m proud that we were successful not only in passing the DTV transition in the previous Congress, but also that we provided a helping hand to enable our first responders to better protect all of America.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.