Text Version

December 18, 1997

Separate Statement of Commissioner Ness

RE: Digital Television Fees NPRM

Last year at this time, the Commission adopted the transmission standard for digital television (DTV). In keeping with our "Christmas present" approach to digital television, we today adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to implement Section 336(e) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 ("the Act"). This section directs the Commission to establish a program to assess and collect fees from television broadcasters to compensate the American public for offering certain "ancillary and supplementary services" using digital television channel capacity.

As television broadcasters design their business plans for conversion from analog to digital, they need to know how fees will be assessed if they choose to devote the unused portion of digital capacity to pay services or to derive revenues from other-than-advertising-supported free broadcasting. The amount of such fees will have a bearing on how they use their DTV channel.

By statute -- and by our service rules -- television broadcasters are permitted to use a portion of the digital capacity for other services -- including pay services so long as these uses are consistent with the Commission's DTV transmission standard and do not derogate the primary broadcast signal. The digital standard accommodates a wide variety of uses -- e.g. delivery of data, additional video program streams, updating computer programs. Computer and television convergence is as close as our remote controls.

Even while broadcasting in high definition, a licensee will have additional capacity within the digital bitstream to provide other uses. The digital information needed to convey a video picture constantly varies from scene to scene -- fewer bits are necessary for a shot of two people talking with a static background, compared to a broadcast of a Wizards basketball game. In the overnight hours, there undoubtedly will be additional capacity available to provide viewers with a cornucopia of new services.

Congress has also made it clear that broadcasters who wish to use a portion of the digital capacity for other revenue-enhancing services must compensate the American public for such use of that portion of the spectrum. The spectrum allocation for DTV extends the public trust that was established with broadcast licensees 70 years ago and ensures that a free, over-the-air television service will be available to all Americans in the 21st century. There are many methods for assessing such fees and our Notice today is designed to spur comment on these. Whichever method we ultimately adopt must be simple to apply and simple to enforce. Broadcasters should not need to hire a battery of economists to comply with their obligations.

As a final note, Congress has made it abundantly clear that it fully expects broadcasters to focus their digital capacity on providing their local communities with a wealth of free broadcast programming, including programming transmitted in high definition. While the opportunity to provide many new and exciting services is available through the flexibility of the digital standard, I do not anticipate broadcasters will abandon their birthright of top quality free video broadcasting.

I look forward to next Christmas season, when digital television service will be inaugurated by many committed and enthusiastic broadcasters, beginning in the top markets across this country.