Kennard Pushes Solutions for Slow DTV Rollout
Four years after Congress gave each television station an additional 6MHz of bandwidth to be used for digital broadcasting, the new format has achieved but a fraction of the market penetration originally predicted for it. Although the National Association of Broadcasters claims that almost 160 stations nationwide now provide some digital programming, it is seen by few consumers because digital tuners and decoders are included only in high-priced receivers. Broadcasters have blamed electronics manufacturers for not including digital circuitry in lower-priced products, and both industries have been unhappy with cable providers for not accommodating the bandwidth-intensive signals—an issue the FCC calls "must carry."
Kennard directed most of his ire at broadcasters, whom he accused of "spectrum squatting" on both the $70 billion worth of new bandwidth they were granted four years ago by Congress to boost the market development of digital television, and on the analog spectrum they already occupied. "The broadcast networks were the beneficiaries of the biggest government giveaway since Peter Stuyvesant bought Manhattan from the Indians for $24," Kennard said, proposing that the networks should have to pay for any analog channels they continue to use after January 1, 2006. The chairman would like to see such fees used to underwrite the conversion to digital of public television.
Kennard said he will request that Congress empower the FCC to adopt a requirement that, by January 2003, all new television sets have the capability to receive digital signals—a move applauded by representatives of the consumer-electronics industry. Kennard's speech came in the wake of a piece by New York Times columnist William Safire denouncing the bandwidth giveaway as "corporate welfare."
NAB president Edward Fritts reacted stonily to Kennard's speech, saying that the FCC already has the authority "to require all digital television sets to receive DTV channels . . . but it has not." Fritts claimed that the Commission also has the authority to make cable systems carry DTV signals, but hasn't yet done that either. Broadcasters are worried about investing in new channels without guarantees that cable operators will carry them or that viewers will be able to see them.
In the four years that the DTV wrangle has dragged on, the market for wireless communications of all kinds has skyrocketed, and many broadcasters have discussed using their DTV spectra for other purposes, such as datacasting. Such proposals have angered both consumers and high-profile commentators like Safire, who are incensed about the fading promise of digital TV.