The Federal Communications Commission struck a deal with TV broadcasters in April, giving them an estimated $70 billion worth of the public’s airwaves so long as they agreed to two provisions. The first was that the networks use their new airwaves to broadcast razor-sharp digital television in the nation’s top 30 markets by November 1999. The other was that broadcasters return to the government by 2006 the spectrum space that they’re using for today’s analog transmission.
Information worldwide is increasingly being stored and transmitted digitally. Especially as TVs and computers converge, digital will become the universal standard. The goal of the FCC and Congress was to give U.S. companies a boost in this exploding global market.
Now, however, broadcasters are trying to renegotiate the deal. They want a nonmandatory target of 2000 to begin broadcasting digitally. More significantly, the broadcasters insist on keeping their analog channels not until 2006 but until 95% of American households can receive digital TV. That could be decades longer. For example, only 96% of U.S. households have telephones after 120 years of service and huge government subsidies. So what the broadcasters had characterized as a short-term “loan” of spectrum space until 2006 would become a blatant giveaway.
Congress should maintain the FCC’s original target dates, requiring digital broadcasts to begin before century’s end and spectrum space to be returned by 2006 unless broadcasters can demonstrate that the date must be adjusted. The FCC’s plan, while binding, would let broadcasters request exemptions every other year if they could prove an unforeseen need.
This flexibility in the FCC plan is important, for even proposals for defining a household that’s “gone digital” keep changing. The current FCC definition includes households that use inexpensive set-top boxes to display digital shows on standard, low-resolution TV screens. Some high-end TV manufacturers, however, are lobbying to restrict the definition to households with expensive, elaborate digital TV sets.
All of these decisions should be based not on special interests but on the public interest. And that’s just what the original FCC deal does: encourage industry to rapidly roll out digital TV so the United States can lead the global market, with broadcasters having the freedom to request future exemptions.