Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bogus: The DTV Delay

Thank you, House. Not the doctor on Fox, but the bigger part of our bicameral legislature. Today, the House voted down the bill proposing a delay in the switchover from analog to digital television--a bill which passed the Senate unanimously less than 48 hours ago. True, more than half the House voted in favor, but it luckily fell a couple dozen votes short of the required two-thirds needed to pass.

Why am I thanking the House for their sane and reasonable approach to this issue?

For starters, lots of folks have asked for my opinion on the DTV delay. I've been holding off on saying anything publicly, but my cousin tagged me with this question Monday night on Facebook, so I figured I'd finally jump in. Here was my character-limited (by Facebook's number of letters, not by personality) reply...

"Thoroughly a mistake. Giving the disenfranchised four more months simply prolongs the agony all around. I *absolutely* feel for the six million homes at risk of going dark upon switchover. But, Congress would've much better served its constituents to expedite coupon funding, rather than to delay four months. After 37 months to prepare, those who are going to be proactive, have been. Those who are going to be reactive, will be. Until the switch is thrown, the reactives won't, uh, react. Four more months on top of 37 will change little. Once sets go dark, affected homes will take the plunge to purchase a converter box, or a new television with an integrated digital tuner. With millions of converter boxes on store shelves today, the issue facing current analog TV viewers is how to pay for them--and the government isn't solving that with a 4-month delay. Fund the coupons now, throw the switch soon."

And, here's my additional $.03...

I don't want to come across as insensitive to the plight of those who can't afford to go out and buy a converter box--like many of us, I lived paycheck to paycheck for more years than I care to admit; for a lot of U.S. residents, throwing money at something like a converter box could certainly be used for something better. Like food and shelter.

But, let's try to keep a few things in mind, items which the Senate obviously didn't consider, but which many in the House thankfully have.

First off, let's be crystal clear about the fact that the DTV conversion isn't something that's snuck up on us. U.S. efforts to move to a more advanced form of television than NTSC began in 1987. 1987! Let me repeat that, in case you missed it--1987, when the FCC formed the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (ACATS). Six years on, ACATS' work led to the formation of the Grand Alliance in 1993. The Grand Alliance collaboration ultimately led to the publication of ATSC Standard A/53 in 1995. Was it perfect? No.

But ya gotta start somewhere.

If you never step off the curb, you'll never cross the street. Sure, you might get hit by a bus, but that's why our parents teach us to look both ways first.

We've been looking both ways for way too long, my friends--we need to cross the street.

The reluctance to step off the analog DTV curb isn't helping anyone, despite what the Senate would like you to believe.

Shall we consider who would be harmed by this four-month charade?

Let's start with broadcasters. The need to continue supporting dual analog and digital transmissions (called simulcasting) is an additional four-month expense that I doubt most TV stations budgeted for, although the wisest ones likely planned for this very outcome. I realize that many consumers don't possess much sympathy for broadcasters, believing that to deep-pocketed folks like ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC, the expense of switching to digital is a drop in the ocean--despite the fact that a lot of mom and pop shops in mid-sized and smaller DMAs have had to increase their budgets by alarming amounts, in some cases doubling (or more) typical annual expenditures.

Next, we move to first responders. Public safety groups are receiving 24 MHz of spectrum as part of the digital transition. Why? So that nationally, first responders can communicate on the same spectrum band. You might be surprised that this capability doesn't exist today, but it doesn't. With a delay, public safety users like police and fire departments will suffer a further four-month hiccup in their attempt to provide more efficient and effective first response. First responders oppose a delay. You should too--your very life may be at stake.

How about the environment? You might think that the cutover from analog to digital wouldn't have an impact on the environment, but you'd be wrong--all the gear required to maintain and power simulcasting consumes a tremendous amount of electricity, either directly or indirectly.

You heard it here first--the DTV delay is anti-green.

Finally, consumers lose. As Nielsen notes, the number of U.S. households unprepared for the DTV switch dropped more than a full percentage point in the four-week period ending 1/18/09. Across the board, every demographic measured at least a 9/10ths of a percentage point increase in readiness--white, black, hispanic, Asian, old, young. Congress, this is what we call progess; thankfully, the House appears to understand the meaning of that word. The Consumer Electronics Association, the National Association of Broadcasters, and many other organizations heeded Congress' call to more heavily promote the DTV switchover as the calendar crept up on 2/17/09. They've done a yeoman's job of getting the word out, via television and radio public service announcements, via newspapers, via weekly and monthly periodicals, and even via the CEA's innovative YouTube contest. Everyone is eager to make this cutover.

We're ready. That's what we're here to tell you. The small percentage of U.S. consumers who still rely on over-the-air programming are ready for a better TV experience. Broadcasters are ready to deliver just that, along with looking forward to turning off their simulcasting albatross. First responders are eager to have better methods of interoperable communications. Consumers who've already acquired their DTV converter boxes are ready to go; those who haven't won't be spurred into action until the analog spigot is turned off.

When that spigot is turned off, consumers who haven't made the move from analog to digital will have the impetus to do something--request their pair of $40 rebate coupons, use coupons they already have, or purchase a new television with a built-in digital tuner. If the Senate really wants to do something beneficial, they can work with their House counterparts to immediately pass a bill providing two items: emergency funding for additional rebate coupons, and a provision for those with expired coupons to re-apply.

That's a bill I'd support wholeheartedly.

Let me reiterate this a final time. A delay serves no one's purpose. The alarmists who are yammering about a 2/17/09 cutover being a train wreck would better focus their energy on convincing Congress to pass an emergency bill with my two suggested items--funding and re-application--rather than wasting their breath on further attempting a delay.

If you agree, support your local first responders and broadcasters by forwarding this page (with a conveniently shorter URL: to your Senators and Representatives. Let them know that you're ready for America to take the final small step in a journey launched more than two decades ago. Babies conceived at the same time as ACATS are old enough to drink, more than 21 years on.

Let's stop rewarding inertia. It's time for DTV to have its champagne toast.

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