January 08, 2009

Congress Should Delay the Digital TV Transition

Update (2:20 PM): Obama calls for Digital TV transition delay

Greetings. Ever since the "final" timing of the U.S. digital television (DTV) transition analog programming cutoff was announced for February 17 of this year, I have suggested that betting your life against another delay was perhaps a bit risky. Now comes word that a variety of interested parties are wisely pushing for just such a delay, but partly for a somewhat surprising and rather depressing reason.

My concern all along was primarily consumer confusion. Promos trying to explain the situation seemed to run more often on channels only available to cable and satellite subscribers -- who were much less in need of the information (since by definition they already had at least one set that would "survive" the transition). The key announcements seemed to show up much less frequently on broadcast channels where they were really needed.

Even worse, much of the information that has been available has led to even more confusion among broadcast TV viewers, many of whom have been falsely led to believe that they needed to subscribe to cable or satellite to keep receiving broadcast TV signals.

The available DTV converters are just plain confusing to many viewers, especially folks who have been watching the same old TVs with "rabbit ear" antennas for ages. Even if they get everything hooked up right, many people will find that their reception under the digital regime is unacceptable due to coverage variations and differing antenna requirements. And I wonder how many persons with digital televisions and converters realize that they usually have to trigger manually scans to pick up digital channel changes?

Most of these problems could have been predicted. But now comes word that the federal program to help pay for converter boxes has run out of funds, being tied to the expiration of unused $40 converter coupons. Even if Congress bypassed the funding requirements today, the coupons can take weeks to reach people after their requests have been approved, and there's barely more than a month left before the February 17 analog programming cutoff for full power stations. There is also rising concern that FCC call centers will be swamped with confused (former) viewers starting at the deadline.

While we can argue about the manner in which the more technical aspects of the transition have been handled, the mismanagement of the converter box coupon program is inexcusable. It didn't take a genius to figure out that there would be a rush of coupon requests near the cutoff date, and to run out of resources at exactly that time is utterly shameful -- and potentially dangerous as well.

Many viewers could in theory buy converters completely with their own money of course, but given the current economic climate, it's likely that significant numbers would forgo getting converters if that were their only option. And cutting people off from all television in this day and age has enormous public safety ramifications. A month after the official cutoff date, even public safety announcements on the analog channels are supposed to cease.

The entire DTV transition project has been mismanaged from the word go. While it's impossible to predict exactly how bad the picture will be after February 17th, simple prudence dictates that the DTV transition deadline be delayed until the coupon program can be realigned and better public information properly disseminated. I recommend a delay of six months to one year.

I'm as eager as anyone else to see the new uses of the spectrum that will be freed up by the completed DTV transition -- but not at the cost of millions of people, often exactly those persons who most depend on a single old TV for their connection to the outside world, being left out in the broadcasting cold.


Posted by Lauren at January 8, 2009 08:57 AM | Permalink
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