Is the DTV Transition Dog About to Jump its Leash?

by on January 10, 2009 · 10 comments

PFF’s President Ken Ferree wrote a great piece over on the PFF blog (reprinted below) calling for Obama to stay the course on the DTV transition.  Always quick with the bon mot, Ken makes particularly apt use of a very funny anecdote from David Hackett Fischer’s excellent new biography of Samuel Champlain, the fascinating founder of Quebec.

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The Obama Transition Team apparently has asked Congress to postpone the long-planned, and long-overdue, DTV transition beyond February 17th.  It is not clear, at least to your humble correspondent, whether the request is intended primarily to provide political cover to the new Administration in the event the transition does not proceed smoothly, or whether this is a serious effort to delay the recovery of a large swath of analog television spectrum.  If it is the former, the effort is completely understandable and likely prudent.  If the latter, however, the request is misguided and counterproductive at a time when technology policy should be driven by the needs of the Twenty-First Century rather than those of the last.  In either case, however, Congress should abjure any inclination to accede to the Team Obama’s request.

In the 16th Century French Court, there was a titled position known as the “Picqueur de Chiens de la Chambre du Roy” – roughly, “Chief Whipper of Dogs in the Royal Kennel.”  As one of the early advocates for bringing the DTV transition to a speedy and firm conclusion, I feel obliged to serve a function akin to Picqueur de Chiens de la Chambre du Roy and use the cane to make sure the DTV dog does not break heel and bolt.

Accordingly, permit me to be blunt.  It was always the case that some relatively small number of people would be adversely affected by the end of analog broadcasting.  However long the transition period, and however much money is spent on consumer education, equipment subsidies, or other related consumer services, there inevitably will be those who will be unprepared and who will lose television service when stations cease broadcasting an analog signal.

The considered judgment of Congress, however, was that with adequate notice and some small subsidy for converter boxes, the number of people who may lose service following the transition can be minimized, and that the value to the general population of the new services that will use the recovered spectrum will far exceed the cost of lost television service to those few who do. 

Make no mistake, at the time, this was not an easy judgment to make and a considerable amount of political courage was involved in mandating a nationwide transition to digital television service.  At this point, however, little or nothing is to be gained by delay, while the costs of withholding the spectrum from higher and better uses mount each and every day the transition is delayed.

It cannot be maintained, at this late date, that there has been a lack of notice of the transition.  The message has been proclaimed from the hilltops by a legion of voices and it has echoed in the deepest hollows.  Nor can it be gainsaid that equipment subsidies have been available to those who need them (and those who don’t) for an extended period of time – time enough to learn of the program, obtain the subsidy, and acquire the necessary equipment.  Indeed, we’ve long passed the point of diminishing returns such that each new dollar spent upon the transition, and every day the transition is delayed at this point will have a dramatically diminished impact on actual preparedness. 

On the other hand, new technologies and new services await a spectrum home.  President-Elect Obama has correctly placed great emphasis on technology advances as a partial solution to the country’s current economic woes.  Many of the promising next generation communications and information technologies await access to the 700 MHz spectrum to be vacated by analog broadcasting following the DTV transition: they should wait no longer. 

This is a perilous time, and certainly not a time for Congress to lose nerve and backtrack from hard, but important policy decisions it has already made to drive technology policy into the Twenty-First Century.  Given that some dislocation was inevitable as a result of the end of analog broadcasting, it was entirely predictable that the DTV dog would strain at its leash as the date for the transition approached; Congress should not be shy about keeping it at heel.

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