FCC officials say they will scrutinize carefully the bids for early transition

The U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly to delay the transition to digital TV.  While the foundation for digital has been quietly laid for years with preparation and hardware incorporation, the U.S. is slightly unique in that it will mandate all analog stations to cease broadcasting on June 12.  Previous efforts in other countries saw a gradual phase out of analog, with local cutoff dates.

Despite the fact that the transition has been pushed back officially, it may in essence still occur on February 17, the FCC is discovering.  Of the country's 1,800 television broadcast stations, about 681 have filed to go digital next week, or have already gone digital.

The vast number of applications to go digital early took the FCC by surprise.  States FCC Chairman Michael Copps, "We are six days from the most demanding consumer technology transition in the history of broadcasting.  People need to know that we are under the gun to provide flexibility (to broadcasters)."

The FCC says they are reviewing the requests for the early switch and may reject some in areas that would be cut off from analog coverage.  Such situations have been warned about by President Obama, who states, "Millions of Americans, including those in our most vulnerable communities, would have been left in the dark if the conversion had gone on as planned."

Many major broadcasters, including CBS Corp, General Electric Co's NBC and Walt Disney Co's ABC, pledged to continue broadcasting in analog and not switch early.  But according to industry analysts, those broadcasters only account for about 100 of the 1,800 stations in the country.  About 20 markets may have no local options at all, affecting about 2.3 million households, says the FCC.  In total 7.4 million households may be in areas with no analog coverage as well, but many of these households are digital-ready.

Experts with the FCC and other analyst groups estimate that 20 million mostly poor, elderly or rural households are still not ready for the switch to digital.  The FCC is trying to analyze these numbers and identify "vulnerable" markets to force analog signals to be retained in. 

Stations had to file their petitions to go digital early by February 9.  The FCC reserves the right to deny any station from transitioning to digital.  If it does so, Chairman Copps says the agency will only reverse its stance if a denial would put the station in financial or contractual duress.

"What would I do? I'd shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders." -- Michael Dell, after being asked what to do with Apple Computer in 1997
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