Here We Go Again: Congress Expected to Delay Digital Television

Comment: While the FCC and Congress are wrangling about the transition to Digital TV, the future of many of our wireless microphones is at stake. This is the latest piece of news: it looks like the wrangling will succeed this time, and the deadline for the transition that will require us to re-scan all of our mics will be put off from later this month to early summer, but keep in mind: that's only the deadline. The bill as it now stands appears to give individual TV stations the choice of when they make their switch: any time between now and then. Please keep your eyes and ears open. Your region's stations could surprise you! Call, email or Facebook with questions or comments.

February 02, 2009 |

The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to complete congressional action Wednesday on a bill that would delay for four months the nation's conversion from analog to digital television broadcasts. No, this isn't a story from last week that got republished by accident. No, this isn't a joke. Yes, this is Déjà vu all over again.

When we last saw our heroes, the Senate was passing the DTV Delay Act (Monday) and the House was shooting it down (Wednesday). President Barack Obama proposed the delay, so his signature is assured -- if the bill can emerge from the Congress. It got a second chance when the Senate, on Thursday, voted it up again. The House is scheduled to vote on the Senate's version of the bill (S. 352) on Wednesday and this time, it is expected to fall into line.

What changed things? The next House vote will require only a simple majority -- and Democrats control the House by a comfortable margin. Last week's vote required a two-thirds majority, and fell about 20 votes short.

No answer seems to have surfaced on whether this is even a good idea.

Far from giving analog stragglers some breathing room, some experts say delaying the transition will only make matters worse. "No matter when we have this transition, there are going to be people who are not ready for it," Duke professor and former FCC chief economist Leslie Marx told Wired.com before last week's House vote. "I think the best thing for our country is just to go ahead with the transition, and then work hard to get everybody up to speed."

The legislation would, more or less, put on hold what was going to be like the throwing of a big switch on Feb 17: from all analog television signals, to all digital, everywhere for everyone, ready or not. The "readys" with digital tuners would have the benefit of better-looking, better-sounding programming; the "nots" would have snow.

The DTV Delay Bill pushes the date back to June 12, but also allows broadcasters to switch to digital unilaterally, creating the prospect of a patchwork roll out. That peculiarity -- and the notion that delay will do nothing to suddenly inspire a Nielsen-estimated 6 million households to do in the next four months what they haven't bothered to do for the past three years -- killed the bill last week.

The futility issue is only one of the problems with delay. Companies that won auctions for wireless spectrum that is to be freed up on Feb. 17, like AT&T and Verizon, could reasonable seek compensation for not getting the property they were to acquire that day. The Delay bill doesn't address this issue at all.

"Companies have paid $19 billion for the right to use that spectrum, and the wireless communication that could be offered on that spectrum is valuable," said Marx. "If I were one of the companies that purchased spectrum licenses in the FCC's 700-MHz auction, I'd sure be asking the government what kind of compensation I was going to be receiving for, in some sense, the government not providing the good as advertised that I purchased at the auction."

And the average American television station stands to lose $10,000 a month as a result of the proposed delay. They could, under the law, give the FCC 30 days notice and drop analog delivery -- but that could create that confusing patchwork of service and irritate customers who see the Delay bill as, well an actual Delay bill.

Part of the problem could be that the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration spent all $1.34 billion it was allocated to help consumers and businesses make the transition to digital broadcast television, according to InformationWeek, while still not sufficiently preparing the populace for the transition. That allocation included a program to subsidize $40 of the cost of a signal-dumbing converter box that those Americans who still get TV through an antenna (instead of cable or dish) need to see digital programming on analog sets.

But there's even confusion about whether that money has been spent. "The DTV converter coupon program is not out of money; only half of the $1.5 billion in the coupon program has been spent," wrote ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Commerce to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It's possible that many of those coupons, which had expiration dates, are sitting around in drawers like those unused rebates we all intended to use right away.

The proposed legislation would pump another $650 million into the program.

Whenever it happens, and whatever the cost, the transition to digital broadcast television will improve over-the-air sound and video quality, enable more channels to be broadcast and free up valuable spectrum for new wireless services.

According to the new acting FCC chairman Michael Copps, a lack of focus on the part of the Bush administration is at fault for this confusing, and likely expensive, situation.

"At this point, we will not have -- we cannot have -- a seamless DTV transition," Copps told the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee on Friday (.pdf). "There is no way to do in the 26 days new leadership has had here what we should have been laser-focused on for 26 months. That time is lost, and it's lost at a cost."

By Eliot Van Buskirk 
From Wired Magazine's blog.