FCC Rules Cablers Must Provide Analog Signals

Published November 1, 2007

Digital broadcast television (DTV) is coming on February 17, 2009. Though the vast majority of television sets sold today and in the next year will be digital signal-ready, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says about 35 percent of all “television homes,” approximately 40 million households, have analog-only sets and receive only analog signals from their cable companies.

To make sure those analog-only cable subscribers can still watch their local TV stations’ broadcasts after the transition to DTV, FCC in September adopted rules requiring cable operators to make local broadcasters’ primary video and program-related material viewable by all subscribers.

To protect users who still have analog-only cable boxes, FCC wants to prevent cable companies from converting transmission of all available channels to digital format.

Already many cable channels transmit in digital only, but the signals from local TV stations still come down the cable in analog format. The FCC ruling will require cable operators to continue to transmit an analog signal from the local TV station via the cable, even after the station itself starts broadcasting a digital signal over the air.

Cable operators will have to carry broadcast signals so the picture quality is at least as good as the quality of any other programming carried on the system. The requirements are in effect through February 2012 and could be extended.

Price May Increase

FCC says it “is committed to ensuring that the 98 million TV viewers watching roughly 120 million [analog] sets retain the same access to their local stations after the transition as they do today.”

That access will come with a high price.

Consumers will receive two $40 vouchers they can apply to the purchase of two DTV converters to decode the digital signal for use on an analog set. Each converter is expected to cost between $80 and $100. The vouchers cannot be combined to purchase a single converter.

The voucher program is estimated to cost $990 million and will be managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Industry Takes Initiative

In the wake of Congressional concerns that consumers with analog sets will not understand the transition to DTV (see “Congress Questions FCC’s Digital TV Plan,” IT&T News, September 2007), the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) launched a $200 million consumer education campaign in September.

The “Get Ready for Digital TV” campaign features 30-second English and Spanish-language TV commercials for cable and broadcast TV stations and networks. In each, folksy guitar music plays in the background while a “regular” cable subscriber assures viewers, “every TV set you have hooked up to cable will work just fine” when the digital transition comes.

Viewers not using cable are directed to an 800 number and a Web site, http://www.dtvtransition.org, for more information. The spots end with the claim that cable pictures are sharp and pristine and that one way or another, cable operators have “taken care of all that transition stuff for us.”

Broadcasters Publicizing

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) told FCC in a September comment filing that its board of directors has “made the DTV transition its single highest priority.” NAB said it has hired a full-time staff of five to focus exclusively on consumer education and has retained a public relations firm dedicating full-time resources to “developing and deploying” NAB’s consumer education initiative.

NAB also told FCC it has partnered with state broadcast associations to deliver “DTV toolkits” to governors, state legislators, and state agencies to help them understand the impact of the transition. This fall it also rolled out a DTV Road Show at which NAB spokespersons demonstrate converter boxes at sporting events, state fairs, and state capitol buildings.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-MI), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and a key member of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, praised the private-sector efforts. He and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), chairman of the subcommittee, told FCC in May they did not think it had adequate DTV consumer education plans and considered the agency’s request for $1.5 million from Congress for education insufficient.

Dingell said in statements, “cable operators are to be commended for being at the forefront” of consumer education efforts and it was “reassuring to see the initiative taken by the broadcasting and cable industries to prepare consumers for the DTV transition.”

[Needs original quotes.]

Sharon J. Watson ([email protected]) writes from Sugar Land, Texas.