Statement of Congressman Cliff Stearns
Before the Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee Hearing on Transition to Digital Television Legislation
September 25, 2002

Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for holding this hearing on legislation advancing the transition to digital television.

We all recognize the challenges that cable operators, broadcasters, content community, manufacturers and retailers face in making digital television a reality and main stay. As such, the light at the end of the tunnel is starting to grow bigger as the players in the different industries are working together in order to make DTV a reality.

The staff draft before this committee is a considerable first step in the right direction. First and foremost, the draft requires all TV sets sold or manufactured after Jan. 1, 2006, to recognize a broadcast flag, thereby permitting digital TV stations to obtain high value content, all the while allowing consumers free, over-the-air programming without limiting the consumer's ability to make personal copies.

The draft also prohibits the manufacturing of sets with analog outputs after July 1, 2005. This provision, along with future consensus watermark legislation, closes the analog hole and ensure the protection of intellectual property.

Furthermore, the staff discussion requires cable operators to transmit signals compatible with "plug-and-play" sets without need for set-top converter by July 1, 2005. I also support codifying the timetable phasing in DTV tuners in all sets 13 inches and larger, thereby jump-starting the stalled transition.

Mr. Chairman, I support requiring affiliates to pass through a network's entire digital signal without degradation. This allows consumers to be confident that when they make an investment in High-Definition sets, their sets will be able to experience digital broadcasts as intended. However, I want to bring to the Committee's attention a little-noticed and often overlooked, but critical component of America's transition to digital television, that of the use of digital studio-to-transmitter microwave links, which have not received approval by the FCC.

The absence of FCC approval for digital studio-to-transmitter microwave links is greatly complicating the move of many commercial and public television stations to digital, high-definition broadcasts. The FCC's delay in approving the use of these links will undermine one of the main components of the legislation we are considering today.

While the draft requires all network affiliates to pass-through high-definition signals sent by the major networks, without the FCC's immediate approval of the use of digital microwave studio-to transmitter links, the pass-through of high-definition signals will be impossible.

While the staff draft includes many positive elements to ensure the digital transition is not stalled, I would like to learn more on the provision requiring broadcasters to return their analog spectrum by Dec. 31, 2006, regardless of whether 85% of homes can receive a digital signal. My primary, and foremost concern is focused on the consumer. I would like to learn more from our witnesses on the ramifications of such a provision, particularly, if it risks turning consumers' sets obsolete.

Additionally, Florida is the home of several broadcast companies focusing on programming for underserved and distinct constituencies including religious, Spanish-language and family-friendly genres. Many of these stations are smaller and independent and not part of the major network groups. Their service is invaluable in bringing local and varied viewpoints to my district, state and country. On a regular basis, these broadcasters remind me that must-carry requirements established in the 1992 Cable Act have been the backbone of their existence. We must now determine how must-carry applies to digital television.

During a hearing held by this committee last year, I asked FCC Chairman Michael Powell how the current FCC "primary" or one channel rule affects small and independent broadcasters. To paraphrase his response, he indicated that a lack of multicast must-carry would have a negative and disproportionate impact on these stations. As cable operators and broadcasters take advantage of advanced technology to increase channel capacity in correlating increments, is it reasonable to relegate broadcast carriage on a cable system to only one channel instead of passing the entire 6 MHz through should a broadcaster choose to multicast? We must decide how to strike a balance between cable and broadcasters to continue the success of the 1992 Cable Act must-carry provisions in spurring diversity in the television medium. As we review how must-carry will apply to digital television, I ask my colleagues not to lose sight of the need for broadcast independence and localism.

Mr. Chairman, I look forward to working with you, and this committee, to ensure consumers realize the full benefits of high-definition television services in a timely manner. Thank you.