Question: Should the government delay the digital television transition? 

The current deadline is February 17, 2009. The new administration is concerned about disenfranchising people who rely on over-the-air television.

My answer:

As of today, January 15, 2009, about a month before the DTV conversion, whether or not government should introduce delay in it, is a relevant question.

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps spoke on Tuesday December 2, 2008 at Marquette University, an urban setting, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After twenty minutes of information and demonstration, his town hall meeting was open to the audience for questions. They were tough. A few of the questions they asked were: Why is the government doing this?  How long will converter boxes work?  Will the government be able to listen in on my home?

What became apparent to me was that many people impacted by the over-the-air broadcasting changes are under informed, need more education and at the same time are capable of understanding more technical and sophisticated information that the current massive effort provides.

Commissioner Copps was apologetic. He admitted there wasn't enough time and that many people subject to the change are not ready.  He warned that the DTV converter box coupon program was running out of money.  He said that the community needs to become more involved in the education process. We sensed his frustration.

On December 23, 2008 the Congress passed the DTV Nightlight Act. This action indicates that lawmakers sense the public is not ready. The late hour timing of the law shows it is a stopgap measure. There are many reasons a station need not participate. In many of the larger designated market areas (DMAs) where the bulk of the stations return to their pre-transition analog channels, there's little possibility of nightlight transmissions. There is a tradeoff between keeping viewers and the unanticipated and unplanned for costs of providing nightlight service. 

A delay of all full power stations' conversion beyond February 17, 2009, most likely would be un-funded but mandated. 

In the latest issue of IEEE Broadcast Technology Society Newsletter a writer points out FCC's lack of focus on DTV transition. That's another indicator.

Also in the news we read about the growing waitlist of converter coupon requests. Funding, as predicted, has run out.  Coupons are no longer being issued.

I have been impressed by DTV successes, the creation and acceptance of complex standards, the devising of innovative compression techniques, and the considerable effort of stations and the TV industry to move to digital from analog. And while there has been substantive work on educating the public, it seems there is a need for more.

I have a project management background; where one's job can be on the line to make schedule.  However, astute executives know a project headed for customer failure should be given additional time and resources to succeed.

I believe success is possible.

The primary component of new effort is to revisit and redo some education tasks. Deborah McAdams' editorial column in the December issue of the trade periodical Television Broadcast covers some points that should be part of the general public's knowledge of DTV.  Its history back to President Reagan's times and what will become of the freed up broadcast spectrum are two examples. What the public might also benefit from is learning the differences between analog and digital: a digital signal is a more productive use of spectrum and spectrum is a limited and valuable resource.

The second component of additional effort should be teeth behind Commissioner Copps' rationale for the conversion.  He stated that during the Hurricane Katrina rescue and clean-up period, multiple public safety agencies could not communicate because of diverse radio equipment.  He said the freed up spectrum space will allow those agencies to use new technologies and equipment to communicate with each other. What he did not say was how it would be done or paid for. I am unaware of any plans or laws in place that address this work

Commissioner Copps also did not say that there would be other commercial users, of that same freed up spectrum. I think it's okay to be open about that.  It should not come as a surprise.  After all, we live in a capitalist nation.  

Funding of the converter coupon program is another needed component.

As much as we would all like to be done or at least into a next phase of DTV on February 17, I believe with additional key tasks like the ones I have identified, that are funded and tasked, a government delay of relatively short and known duration is appropriate.

 

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