Qualcomm Urges Congress to Stay the DTV Course

Chip maker Qualcomm complains it spent $550 million for spectrum and hundreds of millions more to build a mobile television platform and followed the rules laid out by the Congress and the FCC. Qualcomm is ready to move into Channel 55 the day after the Feb. 17 deadline for broadcasters to switch from analog to digital broadcasting, and plans to offer 15 mobile TV stations on the same frequency that carries one analog station. Qualcomm needs the business, but Congress is moving to push the deadline to June 12.

Most of the last year's big winners of the Federal Communications Commission's 700MHz auction are reluctant-perhaps understandably-to push Congress to stay the course on a Feb. 17 deadline for television stations to make the switch from analog to digital broadcasting.
Even though they paid billions to secure the analog spectrum being vacated by broadcasters and much of their economic future hinges on getting their hands on the airwaves for advanced wireless services (3G and 4G broadband), AT&T and Verizon are circumspect when it comes to moving the DTV deadline to June 12, a decision the U.S. Senate has already made while Democratic leaders in the House are preparing for a similar vote as early as the week of Feb. 2.
Like the politicians, the veteran telecommunications lobbyists are leery of messing with consumers' television reception even if more than 90 percent of U.S. households are fully prepared for the digital switch. Verizon, which spent $9.4 billion to secure the biggest chunk of spectrum, and AT&T, which dropped $6.6 billion for another sizable slice, have both signed off on moving the deadline to June 12.
Not so Qualcomm. The San Diego-based chip maker is far less concerned about Uncle Bob in Idaho somehow missing the endless public service advertising about the digital switch and waking up Feb. 18 with no reception than it is concerned with rolling out its cell phone television service on Feb. 18.
"Any delay of the DTV transition ... will penalize Qualcomm for having acted as a responsible FCC licensee in following the law and making the investments necessary to turn on our transmitters as soon as the DTV transition ends on Feb. 17, 2009," Qualcomm CEO Paul E. Jacobs said in a Jan. 19 letter to lawmakers.
Qualcomm spent $550 million to acquire spectrum in the 700MHz range that carries Channel 55 TV signals. It has spent "hundreds of millions" more building the digital network that offers 15 channels of mobile programming on the same frequency that carries one analog station. Qualcomm is ready to flip the switch.
"Unlike other companies, we are prepared to launch our FLO TV service and turn on 100 new transmitters across the U.S. immediately after the transition date, which will allow a total of more than 180 million consumers in 80 markets to use our innovative wireless service," Jacobs said.
Given Qualcomm's latest revenue report, the company's need to jump into the Channel 55 space is understandable. After reporting Jan. 28 a 56 percent decline in its first-quarter net profits, Qualcomm said a DTV delay would cost the company millions and a possible first mover position in the mobile TV marketplace.
"We are very disappointed with the passage of legislation in the Senate," Qualcomm spokesperson Christine Trimble said in a statement. "As the House considers legislation, we are continuing to request that the legislation retain the February 17th date for nine TV stations in four markets-Boston, Houston, Miami and San Francisco."
Since the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced Jan. 5 that funding for the $1.34 billion digital converter box coupon program was temporarily exhausted and then-President-elect Barack Obama said the digital switchover should be delayed, lawmakers have been scrambling to abide by the president's request.
Democrats in the Senate and the House want to extend the deadline for television stations to make the switch to June 12, in addition to tossing in $650 million more for the digital converter box program. Republicans in the Senate at first objected but then struck a compromise with Democrats: moving the deadline to June 12 but allowing stations that want to go ahead and make the conversion to do so any time prior to June 12. The Senate approved the digital TV deadline extension measure Jan. 27.
That appeared to grease the wheels for passage of the DTV delay legislature in the House, but House Committee on Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) was unable to win over Republicans and canceled two hearings on the delay. Switching legislative tactics, Democratic leaders tried Jan. 28 to win approval for the Senate version of the DTV delay under rules that required a two-thirds majority. It failed, although the vote for the delay was 258-168.
"I am very disappointed the House Republicans blocked the DTV extension today in the House," Waxman said in a statement. "Their vote has wasted valuable time and will cause needless confusion for consumers. A clear majority in Congress supports postponing the transition and providing assistance to the millions of households that are unprepared."
If the House ultimately fails to act on a digital TV extension, consumers who solely depend on over-the-air signals for television reception must buy a digital television set or a digital converter box for their analog sets. Consumers who use cable or satellite service are not affected by the change.