DTV Transition: Date Uncertain

digtv120-thumb.gifThe analog shutdown â''date certainâ'' of 17 February is now date uncertain. Earlier this week the Senate passed a bill to delay the transition to 12 June; meanwhile, the House voted against a similar bill under special rules that required a two-thirds majority to pass. The House bill is likely to come up again next week under different voting rules.

The case for 12 June: more of the coupons that subsidize digital converters have been requested than are available, evidence that analog TV viewers need more time to get ready and the government will possibly need more money to help them. The case for 17 February: any delay will just confuse consumers more, will cost television and other companies and the government a lot of money, and might not make the transition any smoother.

I think Iâ''ve seen this show before. Itâ''s a rerun from 2005, when the House and Senate established the date certain in the Digital Transition and Public Safety Act as part of a budget reconciliation bill. Lobbying for the date certain included an industry coalition representing wireless, computer, telecom, semiconductor, software, and manufacturing companies and industry associations. They argued that only a date-certain would let companies move forward to develop new wireless technologies for the spectrum that was due to be vacated. Also lobbying hard for a date certain were public safety agencies. Since 11 Septemberâ''s attacks and the communications difficulties experienced by rescuers inside the World Trade Center, such groups are eager to get their hands on the big, clean chunk of high-quality bandwidth due to be dedicated to emergency services after analog shutdown. The cable television industry, of course, also supported a hard date.

On the other side, Congressmen expressed concerns about low-income folks, the elderly, and Hispanic viewers, demographic groups that represent the vast majority of people who rely on over-the-air broadcasts for television, and discussed at length they could be converted to digital with little cost or trouble. The solution that got the date certain bill passed was the converter program which, for the most part, handled the cost, but didnâ''t address the trouble part of the equation. And the subsidy program did not include any money for new antennas, because the FCC assured Congress at the time that current antennas would function just fine with digital receivers.

So now weâ''re back to date uncertain. Some corporations are sweatingâ''it costs broadcasting companies big bucks to run two transmitters, for one. Some of the companies that bought the spectrum real estate wonâ''t be affected muchâ''Verizon, for example, wasnâ''t going to start testing its next-generation wireless network on the new bandwidth until the second half of the year. But others have made big investments to be ready to move into their new homes on 18 February, like Qualcomm, who has its MediaFlo video service ready to go, spent the money to build the infrastructure, but now, potentially, will see a delay before it can start selling the service to subscribers.

And my mother, who now has to struggle with multiple confusing remotes to watch 60 Minutes on her little 15-inch TV, is going to be angry that I made her go through conversion when she didnâ''t really have to.

For more of Spectrum's coverage of the digital transition, see Special Report: The Day Analog TV Dies.


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