On February 8, 2006, President Bush signed into law the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 (the “DTV Act”).  The DTV Act contains provisions relating to the nation’s transition from analog to digital television broadcasting.  Most significantly, the DTV Act establishes February 18, 2009 as the “hard” deadline by which full-power television stations must cease broadcasting analog signals and commence broadcasting exclusively in digital format.  Congress previously had set a target date of December 31, 2006 for the end of the transition from analog to digital broadcasting.  That date, however, was flexible in that television stations could seek an extension of the deadline, and continue broadcasting in analog format, if less than 85 percent of the households in their respective market had access to the digital broadcast signals (e.g., owned a digital television set or a converter box that would make digital signals viewable on older analog television sets).  The DTV Act eliminates the 85 percent extension criteria and establishes February 18, 2009 as the “hard” deadline for turning off analog television signals.

During the transition period before the “hard” deadline, the nation’s full-power television stations will continue to broadcast their programming in both analog and digital formats. Such “simulcasting” is viewed as inefficient, however, because television stations require twice as much spectrum to transmit both their analog and digital signals over the air. After the February 18, 2009 “hard” deadline, television stations will transmit only digital signals and will be required to surrender their spectrum previously used for broadcasting their analog signals. In addition, after the “hard” deadline, television stations will broadcast their digital signals only on television channels 2 to 36 and 38 to 51. As a result, the spectrum comprising television channels 52 to 69, which historically has been used for television broadcasting, will be vacated as of the “hard” deadline. The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) will auction most of this recovered television spectrum for commercial wireless use and will reserve 24 MHz of the spectrum (comprised of former television channels 63, 64, 68, and 69) for public-safety communications. The DTV Act directs the FCC to conduct an auction of the recovered spectrum not reserved for public-safety use by January 28, 2008.

To assist consumers who wish to continue receiving broadcast programming over the air using analog-only television sets not connected to cable or satellite service, the DTV Act authorizes the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to create a digital-to-analog converter box assistance program. Under the program, the NTIA initially is allocated up to $990 million of revenues obtained from the auction of the recovered television spectrum to send by U.S. mail up to two $40 coupons to each U.S. household that requests to participate in the program. The $990 million allocation would fund more than 22 million coupons. If, as the program progresses, it appears that the NTIA will need additional funds, it may certify to Congress the it cannot operate the program without more money, at which point the funds available for the program will increase to $1.5 billion, which would fund an additional 12.5 million coupons. There is no means test or other qualification for consumers to participate in the program. Anyone can request coupons regardless of income or whether the household subscribes to cable, DBS, or other video programming service. Consumers may use the coupons toward the purchase of eligible digital-to-analog converter-boxes. Such boxes, and over-the-air digital televisions in general, can work with the antennas consumers already use in their homes to receive analog over-the-air broadcasts. The DTV Act also permits NTIA to use up to $5 million of the $990 million allocation to educate consumers about the digital television transition and the digital-to-analog converter-box program.

Other provisions of the DTV Act allocate funding to the following programs: (1) up to $1 billion to assist public safety agencies in implementing voice and data communications systems capable of sharing information among local, state and federal agencies; (2) up to $30 million to reimburse New York City area television broadcasters for costs incurred in the construction of replacement digital television facilities following the September 11 terrorist attacks; (3) up to $65 million to convert low-power television and translator stations from analog to digital transmissions; and (4) up to $156 million to create a unified national system capable of alerting the public to natural disasters, man-made accidents, and terrorist incidents, of which $50 million is earmarked for tsunami warning and coastal vulnerability program.

Authored by:
Christopher Tygh