A Federal Communications Commission plan to help owners of rural television stations survive the transition to digital broadcasting is great for station owners, bad for cable companies and of questionable value to viewers, according to critics.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's plan is meant to help thousands of low-power television stations across the U.S. that operate in rural and underserved communities hold on to their viewers during the digital shift.
Owners of these stations have been upset because they say they have been largely left out of government efforts to educate the public about the change.
Beginning Feb. 18, 2009, all full-power television stations in the U.S. will broadcast a digital-only signal. Anyone who gets programming via an antenna and does not have a newer-model digital set will need to buy a box that will "down-convert" the digital signal to analog.
The government will provide two $40 coupons per household that can be used to buy these boxes.
The problem facing the low-power stations is that they are not required to go digital. Use of a converter box may actually block the low-power analog signal, yet digital signals would display normally. The problem was first publicized in an Associated Press story in January.
Martin outlined his plan to help rural stations to reporters earlier this month. In it, he "explicitly encourages" the consumer electronics industry to configure their boxes to allow for analog signals, but that fell short of what low-power stations had sought. In December, the Community Broadcasters Association, which represents the small stations, asked the FCC to declare that boxes that do not "pass through" analog signals violate the federal "All-Channel Receiver Act" and should be banned from sale.
The chairman wants a hard date of 2012 for low-power television stations to convert to digital. In addition, he would allow them to apply for a second frequency assignment so they can continue to broadcast in analog format while they build their digital stations.
Martin also wants to give special consideration to the roughly 560 Class A stations, a special class of low-power broadcaster, to apply for full-power status when they convert to digital.
Full-power status greatly enhances a station's value because cable companies are required to carry the signal.
The low-power television industry has been lobbying for Class A, must-carry status for years. While these proposals will clearly benefit station owners, what is not clear is what they will do to remedy the problem at hand — how to make sure current over-the-air viewers will still get a signal during the transition.
"It does absolutely nothing to fix the underlying problem," said Chris Murray, senior counsel for Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports magazine. "It is just multimillion dollar windfall."
Kyle McSlarrow, chairman and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association said Martin's proposal was a "gratuitous sideswipe" at the cable industry that does nothing to address the underlying issue.
An added must-carry requirement for cable system operators comes at the worst possible time, he said, because they are already dealing with an FCC requirement to provide programming to viewers in both digital and analog format.
Murray said he can't understand how the problem got to this point in the first place.
"If the FCC had been doing its job, it seems to me they would have informed NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) that this low-power issue could be a problem," he said.
The NTIA administers the $1.5 billion coupon program. The Government Accountability Office has criticized both the NTIA and the FCC for a lack of coordination regarding the transition.
Fortunately for viewers of low-power programming, four of the 42 converter boxes that have been approved for sale allow for both analog and digital programming. According to the NTIA, they are: the Philco TB150HH9; the Philco TB100HH9; the ECHOSTAR TR-40 and the Magnavox TB-100MG9.
The agency had not responded to requests for comment on this story as of early Tuesday afternoon. Martin's plan could get a vote at the next FCC meeting, scheduled for Feb. 26.