Additional Federal Efforts Could Help Advance Digital Television Transition

GAO-03-7: Published: Nov 8, 2002. Publicly Released: Dec 2, 2002.

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The transition to broadcast digital television (DTV) will provide new television services and the improved picture quality of "high definition television." It will also allow some portions of the radiofrequency spectrum used for broadcasting to be returned for public safety and commercial uses. The Congress set December 2006 as the target date for completing the DTV transition and turning off the analog broadcast signals. However, this date can be extended if fewer than 85 percent of households in a market are able to receive the digital signals. GAO was asked to assess issues related to the DTV transition.

Numerous factors are impeding the progress of the DTV transition, making it unlikely that 85 percent of households will be able to receive DTV signals in many markets by December 2006. Few consumers own digital television equipment. Only about 1 percent of television equipment sold in 2001 could receive digital signals. This is largely because digital television sets and tuners are expensive and high definition programming is limited. Many consumers are unaware of the DTV transition. In a random household survey conducted for GAO, 40 percent of respondents had never heard about the transition; only one in five were "very aware" of it. In addition, the quality of information that consumers receive about DTV products at the retail level may be inconsistent. In visits to 23 DTV retailers, GAO found that sales staff sometimes provided inaccurate or incomplete information about DTV equipment and programming. Cable and satellite digital carriage is limited. The great majority of American households receive their television via cable or satellite. However, cable carriage of local digital broadcast channels is very limited. Furthermore, satellite providers currently do not carry any markets' local digital broadcasts. To speed the DTV transition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has required that by 2007 most new television sets be capable of receiving digital signals over the air. Another policy option to speed the transition would be to also require that new sets be capable of receiving digital signals via cable. Because many more American households receive television via cable than receive it over the air, mandating that new sets be "digital cable-ready" could effectively speed the transition. However, the cost to consumers of such a policy would first need to be assessed, and outstanding issues related to the compatibility between cable systems and DTV equipment would need to be resolved. Currently, broadcast stations have the right to require that cable systems in their market carry their analog signals (a right known as "must-carry"). One policy option to facilitate the transition would be to set a fixed date when this must-carry right would transfer from broadcasters' analog signals to digital signals. This option might speed cable carriage of digital broadcasts without requiring cable systems to carry both analog and digital broadcasts simultaneously. Because such a policy could have both advantages and disadvantages, it needs to be carefully evaluated.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FCC has recently developed a new web site with better information about the DTV transition. Moreover, the agency appears to be working more closely with industry to ensure that timely and correct information about the transition is available to the public.

    Recommendation: The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should explore options to raise public awareness about the DTV transition and the implications it will have. For example, FCC might consider a public education campaign of its own, or it might consider partnering with the affected industries to provide consumers with more information about DTV products and the DTV transition. Such actions could help speed consumer adoption of DTV equipment as well as inform the public about a transition that will affect nearly all Americans.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation was effectively implemented through the plug and play agreement that was developed between the consumer electronics industry and the cable television industry. The original agreement was for one-way plug and play, and the two industry groups are now involved in negotiations for bidirectional plug and play.

    Recommendation: The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should direct the relevant FCC bureaus and offices to examine the costs and benefits of mandating that all new televisions be digital cable-ready in addition to the existing mandate for a digital over-the-air tuner. As part of this process, FCC should conduct an independent analysis that estimates (1) the additional cost to consumers of adding a digital cable tuner and point of deployment slot and (2) the timetable of the DTV transition with and without such a mandate. FCC should then report its recommendations as to the actions it believes the Commission or Congress should take regarding a digital cable-ready mandate.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FCC has a plan that calls for the transfer of the must carry rights of broadcasters from the analog to digital signal on a certain date. GAO's recommendation asked for FCC to consider such a policy. Although it is not yet clear that this policy will be implemented, FCC has considered this option, as GAO recommended.

    Recommendation: The Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission should direct FCC's Media Bureau to examine the advantages and disadvantages of a policy that would set a date-certain for cable carriage to switch from full carriage of analog signals to full carriage of digital signals. Such a policy could be implemented by transferring broadcasters' must-carry rights from analog to digital on that date, or through some other means. The Chairman also should direct the Media Bureau to examine the possibility of combining such a policy with a digital cable-ready mandate. As part of this examination, FCC should estimate the amount of time it will take for the DTV transition to be completed without implementation of these policy options.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission


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