The DTV Delay: A Bad Idea

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on January 21, 2009

It looks like the digital television conversion, in the works for 12 years, is going to be delayed for five months or so, from the scheduled Feb. 17 to June 12. The new Obama Administration supports the delay, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John G. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) favors the June date, and Verizon Communications, a powerful opponent of postponement, says it can live with the later date.

Still, delaying the DTV transition at this late date is a terrible idea, mainly because I don’t think it will do anyone any good. Surveys show that about 9% of the U.S. public won’t be ready on Feb. 17, and I’m willing to bet that the same folks won’t be ready in June either. If they haven;t gotten the message after the barrage of publicity that has been given to the February date—a campaign that would have to be repeated in the spring—they’re not going to be ready then either. There’s always some percentage of the population that just doesn’t get the memo, and those folks who avoided acting because they didn’t really think it was going to happen will be even less prepared to believe in June.

There are some real issues with the transition, one of which can be solved now and the rest of which can;t be solved at all. The one that requires action is the fact that the government has run out of money to subsidize the purchase of the converter boxes that will allow older analog TVs to work with digital over-the-air signals. (The vast majority of Americans who get their TV signal from cables or satellite may never realize that there was a digital transition, whenever it happens.)

I thought the idea of offering two $40 coupons to every American household, regardless of income, to subsidize the purchase of converters was extremely stupid. Most likely, its main effect was to allow the makers and sellers of the boxes to freeze the price at about $60 when it otherwise might have fallen to $20. But it is unconscionable to let the money run out now, leaving the folks who most likely need the subsidy the worst without it. But Congress can fix this problem in about five minutes.

The biggest remaining problem of the digital transition is that people who were willing to put up with marginal analog TV signals may find they have no digital service at all. That's because digital does not degrade gracefully; when the signal gets too weak, it just dies. In some cases, even people who got decent reception of analog stations with have problems with digital signals, which operate on different frequencies and sometimes from different towers. The difficulty is that this is going to be just as true in June as it is in February--folks will still have to invest in better antennas, or break down and get cable or satellite.

I don't have much sympathy for broadcasters, who will have to pay to keep their analog service alive for a few extra months. It's the broadcasters who were primarily responsible for delaying the changeover from its original 2006 date. And a five-month delay, provided it doesn't stretch any longer, probably won't significantly delay the deployment of new wireless service on the former analog spectrum. But it will cause public confusion and lead to a pointless repetition of the DTV educational campaign without accomplishing anything useful.

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Reader Comments

na

January 23, 2009 10:02 AM

This is ridiculous!!! What about all of us who bought cable service for this? Do we get our money back for Feb to June? Waste of government resources and MONEY!!! Not the time to WASTE MONEY!!!

Bob Moncrief

January 27, 2009 01:22 PM

An what help is available to people like myself who have purchased the converter box and found it does not work. I went to the government web site for help and it is not available. Appears that the powers that be think all people have premium services or live in metro areas near stations.

When is some one going to offer advice, assistance or a solution to those that will not have service with the conversion?

At my home cable TV will not provide service and satellite will require the removal of many trees.

Ron Thurner

January 29, 2009 12:38 PM

The media, gov't, politicians and lobbyists want to boil this down to an issue of whether consumers are just stupid or simply failed to get a converter box. It "just ain't so"!
There are also many folks who have their converter box and think they are ready because they are currently getting at least some stations digitally. However, the transition date will bring all new frequencies for the digital signals which are being broadcast on 'temporary' frequencies right now. The logical technical thing to do is mandate a delay in full implementation of the transition, require broadcasters to begin transmitting on their final frequency and transmitter location on Feb 17, continue the analog signal on the temporary frequency now used by the digital signal (reverse the current transmitting strategy), and fund the coupon program to bring that program back online, and allow folks an opportunity to get the correct antenna installed in decent (safe) weather.
OR, just say to hell with "them", I'm all set! Then watch on our cable/satellite reception as the news media really tries to understand what went wrong with the Bush strategy on DTV transitions. God knows all his (Bush's) strategies have been so well implemented and fruitful.

Steven

January 29, 2009 12:56 PM

My suggestion to the person above is to get DSL or some kind fast internet and screw over air TV, Watch your programs from you computer, use Sling Box or something like it to watch it on your TV. Watch TV when you want to, the new shows are on the main networks websites.

Forget Cable and Satellite, who really wants to pay for commercials.

The government has really screw this one up by the way. I have heard of people not getting there coupon until it was already expired or back last summer, they couldn't find the convert boxes at the local stores. I know my order didn't go through on the website for the coupon and when I tried a second time at the beginning of January, and now its pending. So now I am waiting for my government money to spend on converter box that is made outside the US. This could have been a great way fix some of the unemployment problem...oh well, same old government.

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BusinessWeek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, Douglas MacMillan, and Spencer Ante dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. One of the first mainstream media tech blogs, Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.

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