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US DTV Cutover: re-purposing spectrum is harder than you think

January 28, 2009 - 1 Comment

With just 20 days until US analog television broadcasting shuts down, the various parts of the federal government are in a dither over whether to hit the brakes to give themselves four more months to prepare for the dawn of the all-digital TV age. A bill pending in Congress, crafted in response to a Obama Transition Team request, would change the date from February 17 to June 12, 2009. The radio spectrum that the old analog broadcasting service is vacating is going to be made available to new, state-of-the-art commercial broadband services and to public safety for their radio interoperability needs. Both of these issues were identified as critical priorities back in 2006 when the legislation authorizing the transition was adopted. So why delay? The old triple-play of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt seems to be a factor. In fairness, the digital transition will to some degree be ugly. There are in any group of citizens those who are resistant to government or public interest messaging -whether it is preparing for the DTV transition or preparing for natural disaster. They are resistant for a variety of reasons -health status, a busy work or home life, or even just because they are hostile to any messaging from the government. Estimates of these unprepared households range widely, from 600,000 to 6.5 million. Unfortunately, there is nothing that the US Congress can do in legislation to eliminate or mitigate that resistance. Nor does the bill attempt to. Instead, S. 328 simply defers the date, making some minor adjustments to the federal government’s coupon program to make it easier for households to get replacement coupons if they have received them before, but failed to redeem them before the 3-month expiration date. Separately, as part of the still-unfinished Stimulus Bill, Congress is expected to identify another $650 million to add to the $1.3 billion already provided for the issuance of discount coupons for set top converter boxes. In effect, the Congress is going to make available about 16 million additional coupons on top of the 30 million already redeemed or outstanding, without prioritizing those new funds for those who are completely unprepared. For the moment, the question remains unresolved. The delay bill sailed through the Senate on unanimous consent, on the wings of the Obama Administration request to put on the brakes and a letter from the Acting Chairman of the FCC advising them to do so. Today, however, the House of Representatives let fail a vote to suspend normal procedures and adopt the Senate bill -clearly, they want more time to think about it. If there is going to be a delay, then by all means let us make it definite, and let’s use the delay time to ensure that the cutover goes as smoothly as possible. Hundreds of nations around the world are watching the national US cutover, and wondering if freeing up TV spectrum would be a good idea for their country. We need to do the best we can to show them that opening up TV spectrum for other uses is good -for public safety, American businesses who will be customers of the new broadband networks, job growth and the economy.

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  1. Of course the vast majority of America's television viewing audience already have a digital black box via their cable or satellite TV provider. Those viewers don't need to do anything come June 12th.