April 3, 1997

Separate Statement of

Commissioner Rachelle B. Chong

Concurring in Part

Re: Advanced Television Systems and Their Impact upon the Existing Television Broadcast Service, Fifth Report and Order (MM Docket No. 87-268)

Today, we complete the Digital TV trilogy of decisions. With the issuance of this decision, its companion DTV Allotment decision, and the DTV Standards decision we adopted last December, the industry finally will have the regulatory certainty and confidence to move ahead to bring state-of-the-art digital television to American households.

The DTV service rules we adopt today are intended to achieve our overarching goal of preserving the free-over-the-air television service Americans rely upon. Clearly, television is an important and unique part of our culture that gives us shared national experiences. Moreover, television broadcasters play an important role in our democratic society by helping safeguard freedom of speech and press. They bring us entertainment, news, election information, educational fare, children's programming, and other public service information.

I respectfully disagree with those that argue that this is a "free giveaway" of spectrum to broadcasters. This is a technology transition. Congress and the Commission have agreed that a temporary loan of a second channel is warranted to smooth the transition from analog technology to digital technology for consumers.

This transition will inure to the benefit of the American people. Digital television will offer viewers sharper, brighter and bigger pictures through high definition TV, wide screen televisions, CD quality sound, more channel options, and innovative services like being able to choose a different camera angle while watching a live sporting event or obtaining player statistics as you watch a baseball game. Further, DTV is a more spectrum efficient system that will permit greater versatility for broadcasters. For example, it can enable broadcasters to offer ancillary and supplementary services along with free-over-the-air broadcast service. Americans deserve to receive the benefits of improvements in television technology, and that is the driving force behind this proceeding. What we are doing today is completing the path that gets us from here to there.

Expeditious and Orderly Transition to Digital TV

It is my belief that as audiences begin to see and experience for themselves the improved DTV service, they will begin buying up digital TVs, just as they embraced other innovations in technology, such as color TVs, VCRs and CD players. In nine years, if most of the audience has switched to digital TVs -- and I believe they will -- the analog television service will be completely turned off. The FCC will then be able to take back the second 6 MHz channel that had been loaned the broadcasters, leaving them with with a single 6 MHz channel. I think this is a sensible transition plan that minimizes consumer upset during the transition period. The alternative is a flash cut transition, which I think is simply unrealistic.

In today's decision, we have shortened the transition period to nine years. I support this shortened transition period because I think the government ought to recover the excess spectrum at the end of the transition period as quickly as possible. I have insisted, however, that we monitor the penetration of DTV sets in American households to ensure that at the end of the transition period, nearly all American households indeed have either made the switch to DTV or have a converter device that will allow their analog TV sets to receive digital TV signals. It is critical that consumer acceptance remains the driving force of this transition.

Construction Requirements

One way to speed consumer acceptance is to encourage the rapid roll-out of digital television by broadcasters. I think a rapid transition is a very important goal for spectrum efficiency reasons. Having said that, we do not have to adopt a "command and control" approach to construction requirements to accomplish a rapid roll-out. I strenuously object to micromanagement of the broadcasters' construction schedules as to their DTV facilities. Mandating unrealistic construction schedules would be arbitrary and overregulatory.(1) Converting to digital television is a costly and complicated undertaking for broadcasters. While I too would like to drive this transition swiftly, we must stay within the realm of reason.

In this order, we have compromised on a more realistic construction schedule for the new DTV facilities. I reluctantly concur in this portion of the decision. We have acknowledged that some broadcasters may run into real life difficulties such as tower siting, zoning issues, obtaining necessary digital equipment from manufacturers, and the like. We have delegated to the Mass Media Bureau the ability to extend the construction schedule for good cause. I fully expect the staff to use their good judgment in applying this waiver authority, especially where the broadcaster has made diligent, good faith efforts.

I also acknowledge that we have received voluntary commitments from a number of the largest broadcasters to have their digital service operating within certain expedited time frames. I commend the broadcasters for their commitments, and hope it will help drive a speedy transition.

Small and Noncommercial Stations

Our decision today also acknowledges the problems that smaller and noncommercial stations may face in making this expensive transition. I am pleased that we have granted them more time to begin operating on the DTV channel. I particularly note that noncommercial stations face special budgetary challenges entering the digital age. Because of the long tradition of public service and commitment to quality broadcasting of noncommercial stations, the FCC has acknowledged in this decision that PTV stations may need and warrant special relief measures to help these stations make the leap into the digital age.

Public Interest

Finally, as to the public interest requirement that will apply in the digital era, this decision leaves no doubt that public interest obligations attach to broadcasting on these digital channels. And so it should be. This is a change from analog to digital technology for existing broadcasters. By statute, Congress has imposed on broadcasters an obligation to serve the public interest. The technological means they use to deliver the signal should not alter this. Thus, it is not surprising that in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, when Congress addressed a number of issues related to digital broadcasting, it did not change this historic public interest standard that has served us well for the past sixty plus years.

In our record, some argued that we ought to more clearly define and quantify a broadcaster's public interest obligation. Others contended that our current rules need not change simply because broadcasters will be using digital technology to provide the same broadcast service to the public. Our decision today states that we shall not resolve this debate today. I think putting off this issue is the right choice because it is premature to make this decision. We simply do not know how broadcasters will choose to use the new technology as they begin broadcasting on the DTV channels.

I want to be very clear that my vote today in no way endorses the concept of increasing or in any way quantifying public service obligations simply because broadcasters are transitioning to a new technology. At this time, the FCC should allow broadcasters to make the most of this technology and afford them great latitude to experiment and try innovative programming techniques using the new DTV channels. We should not attempt to use this technology shift as an excuse to intrude upon broadcaster programming decisions.

1. While we do mandate construction periods in other contexts for licensees, such as wireless providers, we generally give them more liberal construction periods ranging from five to ten years. We also do not differentiate between them based on market size or by assumptions regarding financial status or incentives to move ahead with construction.