Possible DTV delay roils mobile operators

Faster wireless broadband in the U.S. may be held hostage to the already lengthy transition to digital TV if the deadline for shutting down analog broadcasts is pushed back, according to critics of an extension.

TV stations are required to move all their programming to digital channels after Feb. 17 as part of a process in which valuable frequencies in the 700MHz band will be turned over to mobile broadband providers. The federal government has been trying to prepare consumers for the change for years, but the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama has recommended an extension of the deadline. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which had a US$1.3 billion budget for coupons to help consumers buy digital converter boxes for analog TVs, has said that program has run out of money.

The first step in the transition took place Thursday as TV stations in Hawaii were to go all-digital by a special early deadline. Hawaii made the change early to coincide with a move from one antenna site to another on the Big Island. TV stations are moving their towers down from the slopes of the Haleakala volcano in advance of the nesting season of an endangered bird, the dark-rumped petrel, said Linda Brock, vice president of programming and community relations at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in Hawaii.

"So far, so good," Brock said of the transition, less than an hour after the deadline at 11 a.m. Thursday. An FCC representative in Hawaii was not immediately available for comment on the consumers' reaction to the shutdown of analog TV.

The nation's two biggest mobile operators, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, both plan to use 700MHz spectrum for the next generation of mobile broadband, based on LTE (Long-Term Evolution) technology. Earlier this week, Verizon Communications said a delay could hold up deployment of the Verizon Wireless LTE network, which is scheduled for its initial rollout this year. AT&T said it would support a three-month delay but not more, with an assurance of no further extensions. Both companies voiced their concerns in letters to lawmakers including U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Representative Henry Waxman of California, who reportedly are considering legislation to extend the deadline.