The DTV Transition Looks Set To Go Into Overtime
This morning's Post brings the news that the switch from analog to digital TV broadcasts, currently scheduled to conclude on Feb. 17, looks like it's going to get pushed back to June 12. The Senate voted to delay the switch yesterday, leaving only a House vote in favor before a likely signing by President Obama, who urged the delay earlier this month.
The Senate and the president have plenty of company in their view, but I'm not sure this is such a good idea. Let's consider three of the most widely-cited reasons for a delay.
* "People can't get any more of the $40 coupons intended to subsidize purchases of digital-TV converter boxes. A delay will allow the government to restart the coupon program."
This is the best argument for postponing the analog switchoff. This program has not always been well explained and arguably started too soon -- some people apparently ordered coupons that expired before their local stores had enough converters in stock. And now the coupon machinery has seized up, as too many people have claimed coupons but not redeemed them.
But unless this program is greatly expanded, somebody will wind up not being able to claim a coupon he or she would like to get -- this was never intended to underwrite converter boxes for every single analog TV in existence. (If you think it should, I have to ask you why you regard TV as an entitlement and not, say, health care.)
* "People don't want to have to go on roofs to install new antennas in the middle of winter."
OK, fair enough -- although a large chunk of America doesn't face this restriction, and many DTV viewers only need table-top antennas. (As I type this, the cheapo model I bought 12 years ago has allowed a Zenith converter box to stay locked on WETA's digital channels, snowfall and everything, for the last hour.) This weather rationale does suggest we should have staged a rolling shutoff of analog TV, starting in America's warmer regions, but we've only tip-toed into that strategy. Analog broadcasts ended in Wilmington, N.C., back in September, and Hawaii's TV stations shut off their analog stations earlier this month. These earlier transitions also give people a chance to see that the world won't end when analog TV does... which brings me to the third justification for a delay:
* "People are still confused and need more time to figure this out."
Here I don't think a delay will help matters. On one hand, it's not like this transition has crept up on people -- the first digital broadcasts went on the air at the end of the previous millennium, and over the last year or so it's become increasingly hard to miss news of the transition in ads on TV, notices in stores, and stories in the paper and online. On the other hand, a lot of the concerns people express about DTV aren't founded in reality -- for example, worries about being able to watch old videotapes or keep tuning into cable TV -- and the simplest way to put those concerns at rest is to finish the transition.
There are also opportunity costs to procrastination. Today's story by my colleague Kim Hart notes a few identified by opponents of a delay:
But some Republicans say that changing the date would further confuse consumers and create additional costs for broadcasters who have made extensive preparations to switch next month. Wireless companies and public safety agencies also are waiting for airwaves that will be freed by the transition.
Postponing the analog shutoff also means postponing the upgrades some stations are planning to make to their digital signals once they can unplug their analog transmitters. After I wrote last week's column, another tech journalist pointed me to the maps the Federal Communications Commission recently published to illustrate its estimates of digital-TV reception after the analog shutoff; see, for instance, its plots of Washington-area stations' signals (PDF). If the FCC's math comes reasonably close to the truth, digital TV stands to get notably better once analog TV is out of the way, especially in rural areas.
Now it seems we'll have to wait on that improvement. But we'd better get the digital transition over with -- for real -- in June. There will still be angst and confusion, no matter how long we postpone the transition. Meanwhile, other countries have already wrapped up their own digital transitions; I hate to phrase things like this, but at some point we're just going to have to rip the band-aid off.
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