Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bunglers of the spectrum

The following article sums up the debacle.

"How We Bungled the Digital Television Transition"


Eliot Van Buskirk

February 20th, 2009


America's transition to over-the-air digital television signals, which netted the government $19 billion in a wireless spectrum auction, was doomed from the start, thanks to a flawed voucher program and a time frame that left the country stranded between administrations.

In January, close to two million people were stuck on the waiting list for $40 coupons that only cover part of the cost of a digital television converter. The converters make new over-the-air digital signals watchable on analog televisions, expire after ninety days, and originally could not be sent to anyone with a P.O. box or nursing home address.

Recently sworn-in President Barack Obama urged Congress to delay the digital television transition originally scheduled for February 17 until June 12, and Congress complied, costing taxpayers another $650 million as part of the stimulus bill, which will be spent on staffing FCC call centers and outreach programs to help Americans weather a transition most were prepared for.

"It's hard not to be cynical about this, but if you look at the glacial pace with which the federal government has moved in all things concerning the transition, we were immediately concerned as soon as it was clear that the coupon program was unable to process coupons," said Joel Kelsey of the Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. "The largest problem with the transition, and the best argument for delay, was that the coupon program failed consumers when they needed it most."

This failed voucher program, which will cost taxpayers $1.99 billion instead of $1.34 billion, could not keep up with demand. Awareness was not the issue. Traffic to the DTV transition website peaked during the week ending January 3, according to Hitwise. And although the FCC hired an extra 4,265 people to field calls to 1-888-CALL-FCC, only 25,000 people called those centers on February 18, when 421 television stations stopped broadcasting analog signals, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

"These findings from local stations, coupled with the FCC data, paint the picture that by and large TV households affected in those markets were ready," stated NAB digital television transition vice president Jonathan Collegio. "A relatively small percentage of viewers so far have needed assistance."

People knew about the February 17th date because local stations had been alerting them to that fact for about a year, as required.

"There's no way to quantify the time and the cost of the [messaging] crawls [across the bottom of the screen]," said Dean Ditmer, station manager of WKEF in Dayton, Ohio, whose application to cease analog transmission on February 17 as planned was denied. "It's in the probably billions of dollars across the country in terms of what an advertiser would have had to pay."

"No one can afford that kind of advertising."


Among the extra $650 million dollars the delay will cost taxpayers, there's no allowance for stations that have to pay an average of $40,000 to keep broadcasting in analog, or for companies that paid $19 billion for spectrum they were supposed to get four months earlier.

Plus, the $40 vouchers only cover about two thirds of the cost of a converter box: $60-$80 at big box retail stores or $40-$80 plus shipping and handling online. Considering that the government made $19 billion auctioning public spectrum to private companies, many wonder why the voucher program was not managed properly.

"Millions of people across America would lose access to essential news and information, and the federal government, that mandated this transition, was asking them to pay for something they once got for free," said Kelsey. "Meanwhile, they and businesses across the nation were making money, making profit off of this transition. This is something that consumers didn't ask for, but they are being asked to pay for it."

After three years of preparation, $1.34 billion in government spending, plus another billion or so in free advertising from local stations, diligent consumers who were trying to get the coupons six weeks before the February 17th transition date could not receive these insufficient $40 vouchers, and an estimated seven million Americans were still unprepared for digital television, due to sloppy oversight.

After the DTV Delay Act was signed, 421 local television stations (Excel) applied to the FCC to stick with the original February date, approximately 75 percent of those applications were approved. The remaining 25 percent were denied because the FCC insists that at least one major network affiliate in each local area keep broadcasting local news and emergency information, while others broadcast a "nightlight" video informing holdouts about the transition, during the four months leading up to the new June 12 date.

Which brings us back to the failed voucher program -- the main reason for the delay. Why didn't the NTIA make the voucher cover the whole cost of a converter box? "That's a fantastic question," said Kelsey. "Or why didn't they just put out a request for proposals to manufacturers, and give everyone a converter box."

Making matters worse, the 2005 act set the original transition date for February 2009 -- precisely when the FCC and other governmental agencies change hands -- making a quick reaction to the crisis all but impossible.

"In the midst of it, the administration, rightly, was coming in and saying, 'Look, we're going to have to deal with this giant transition that we've been handed in the first twenty days of our administration, and we're looking at potentially tens of millions of people losing access to their television and emergency news and information, and that's not a situation we want to find ourselves in,'" said Kelsey.

This additional factor added to the need for this expensive delay. "Why the hell – excuse me – why in 2005 did they decide February 17th was a good time for this transition?"

100s of analog signals are severed

Analog broadcasting signals will cease for some

DTV officially postponed

More on DTV...Kansas City style

Done deal...analog broadcasting switch on hold

Jacques Steinberg's esaay on DTV switch

The House negates digital delay

Digital TV switchover is postponed

Junk televisions and recycling

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