From the January 2009 Idaho Observer:

The Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005

By Don Harkins

Buried in Section III of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (S 1932) was the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 signed by President Bush on Feb. 8, 2006. In that bill was the Feb. 17, 2009 deadline Congress set for shutting off the analog TV signal and switching on the digital signal that will carry High Definition (HD) TV.

MSNBC reported Jan. 8, 2009, that then President-elect Barack Obama, " urging Congress to postpone the Feb. 17 switch from analog to digital television broadcasting, arguing that too many Americans who rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air channels won’t be ready."

At the time the bill was signed, it was estimated that at least 20 million households in the U.S. were not HD ready. Since people bought analog TVs to watch analog TV, suddenly cutting them off would be akin to "theft." To avoid the appearance of thievery, Congress included $1.5 billion to fund a "voucher" system to help people defray the cost of purchasing converter boxes so their analog TVs could receive the digital signal.

Obama officials concerned. According to the MSNBC report, "Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta said the digital transition needs to be delayed largely because the Commerce Department has run out of money for coupons to subsidize digital TV converter boxes for consumers. People who don’t have cable or satellite service or a new TV with a digital tuner will need the converter boxes to keep their older analog sets working.

"Obama officials are also concerned that the government is not doing enough to help Americans—particularly those in rural, poor or minority communities—prepare for and navigate the transition."

Keen interest. It would appear that Congress and the president-elect have taken a particularly keen interest in making sure Americans are able to enjoy uninterrupted access to TV news and entertainment programming.

Congressional interest in HDTV arose in the 70s when it began feeling threatened by analog HDTV systems being developed by the Japanese. The concept of federal regulatory involvement in HDTV was formally introduced with S 952, the "High Definition Television Development Act of 1989, sponsored by Sen John Kerry (D-MA).

Though the bill never made it out of committee, it outlined the commercial and national security imperatives of replacing analog TV with digital technology and recognized that "Government action and industry cooperation are necessary to insure that domestic industries engage in long term high definition television research and development and manufacture of high definition television products and related technologies [and] it is necessary for the Congress to take the actions required by this act to encourage and facilitate the development and manufacture of domestically-produced high definition television technologies."

First HDTV broadcast. The first HDTV broadcast was the space shuttle Discovery launch June 22, 1998. Shortly thereafter, more and more network programs were broadcast across analog frequencies using HD technology.

Postponed again? Since 1998, the FCC has been preparing its licensed broadcasters to give up their existing broadcast frequency licenses and be ready for the switch. The first deadline was scheduled for Dec. 31, 2006, but, when it became apparent that the HD ready target of 85 percent of households was not going to be met by that date, Congress passed a law making Feb. 17, 2009, the digital deadline. Congress will have to quickly pass another law to change the deadline date if the HD switch is not ready to be flipped Feb. 17.

The auction. Section III of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (its hard not to crack a joke here) is the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005. This section of the bill is 2,850 words long, contains amendments to the Federal Communications Act of 1934 and provides the $1.5 billion converter box subsidy for poor TV watchers ($40 per converter, limit two per household). It also commands the Federal Communications Commission "…to terminate all licenses for full-power television stations in the analog television service, and to require the cessation of broadcasting by full-power stations in the analog television service, by February 18, 2009; and…to require by February 18, 2009, that all broadcasting by Class A stations, whether in the analog television service or digital television service, and all broadcasting by full-power stations in the digital television service, occur only on channels between channels 2 and 36, inclusive, or 38 and 51, inclusive (between frequencies 54 and 698 megahertz, inclusive)."

The act then refers collectively to all the frequencies for which rescinded licenses had been issued to broadcasters as the "recovered analog spectrum." A subsection of Section 3002 of the act explains that the rescinded licenses are then to be auctioned: "[T]he Commission shall conduct the auction of the licenses for recovered analog spectrum by commencing the bidding not later than January 28, 2008, and shall deposit the proceeds of such….not later than June 30, 2008." The receipts are to then be transferred into the "Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Fund" managed by the Department of the Treasury. On September 30, 2009, the Secretary shall transfer $7,363,000,000 from the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Fund to the general fund of the Treasury."

The auction commenced Jan. 24, 2008. Bidders for pieces of the 700 MHz spectrum, broken into five blocks included Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Google. Verizon Wireless purchased C block for a reported $4.74 billion; the auction netted a total $19.592 billion.

The "public safety" part of the act. With some controversy, likely due to the FCC having no intention of giving it up, the auction for D block failed and will be used as part of the national public safety network (the 758-763 and 788-793 MHz frequencies totalling 10 MHz of bandwidth).

The National Public Safety Network, coordinated by the Department of Homeland Security, is a growing wireless network of "public safety" agencies defined under the act as "…any State, local, or tribal government entity, or nongovernmental organization authorized by such entity, whose sole or principal purpose is to protect the safety of life, health, or property." [emphasis added]

The act specifies that funds to finance the public safety network will be drawn from the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Fund and paid back to the Treasury, "…without interest, as funds are deposited into the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Fund."

Major changes. Aside from the system upgrade from analog to digital, the largest telecommunications companies have just bought 4/5 of bandwidth that supported television broadcasts and government has taken over 1/5 of 700 MHz bandwidth for its wireless "public safety" communications network. If a new law must be passed to postpone the Feb. 17, 2009 deadline, then it isn’t because President-elect Obama is worried about the economic hardship America’s poor, elderly and rural consumers will experience if their analog TV signal dies before the government can buy them a digital converter.

Postponed due to non participation? On May 22, 2008, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced S. Res. 576, which would have designated August, 2008, as "Digital Television Transition Awareness Month." The bill was intended to educate consumers about the coming switch and encourage them to get ready well in advance of the deadline to "ensure as smooth a transition as possible….rather than wait until the last moment."

Though the bill died after passing the Senate, Hatch revealed some interesting statistics about how many Americans were not HD ready. Upon introducing S. Res. 576, Sen. Hatch explained that, "Several studies indicate that many consumers who will be left without any television service after February 17, 2009, may be unaware of the transition and the Government coupon program created to defray the cost of converter boxes. While 64 percent of consumers know about the transition to digital television, 74 percent of that group has major misconceptions about the impact of the transition on their television services. The transition to digital television is especially significant to vulnerable populations such as senior citizen, low-income, and minority households."

It is hard to believe that nearly half of the TV watchers in the U.S. are not aware of the switch to digital. It is also hard to believe that hardcore TV watchers are unaware that, after the switch, HDTV signals won’t work on their analog TV.

It’s more likely a lot of the poor, underprivileged, uneducated, disenfranchised and elderly TV-watching Americans for whom Sen. Hatch is so concerned, have decided to keep their analog TVs, DVD and VHS players. Perhaps they are content to watch old movies because the new "programming" for modern America isn’t worth $40—even with a coupon program.