The DTV Transition Will Now Happen..Whenever

Will the U.S. ever complete the transition to digital television?

Congress set the process in motion in 1996. In 2002, lawmakers voted that the change should be complete by the end of 2006. Then they delayed the date until Feb. 17, 2009. Now. less than two weeks before the scheduled, and exhaustively publicized, cut-over, Congress has voted to put off the transition until Jun. 17.

Representative Rick Boucher (D-Va.), manager of the bill, promised this was a one-time only delay, a pledge echoed by many other supporters. I wish I could believe them.

Of all the reasons for delaying the end of analog television, the only one that could be fix before June is the fact that a government program to subsidize the purchase of analog-to-digital converter boxes has run out of money. But the legislation does nothing to remedy that problem, though additional funding is included in the House-passed economic stimulus bill. And odds are that many of the estimated 6.5 million American households that rely on over-the-air TV broadcasts and who are not ready for digital TV still won't be ready come June. Will the lawmakers who lacked the nerve to pull the plug in February find their courage by June?

The Congressional Democrats who supported the delay seem to have forgotten why Congress endorsed the idea in the first place. Analog TV makes monumentally inefficient use of broadcast spectrum to provide poor quality pictures. Broadcasters can offer up to three high-definition channels in the digital spectrum they have been given (yes, given) to replace the analog spectrum they are to surrender. And their are important uses waiting for that spectrum to be freed. A big chunk of it is to go to public safety agencies to build a national interoperable communications network. Wireless carriers, led by Verizon and AT&T, bid $20 billion for another big chunk, mainly to provide fourth-generation wireless services. Qualcomm bought analog channel 55 nationwide to support MediaFLO broadcasts to mobile devices. All of these services are now on hold.

Democratic supporters were responsible for most of the foolishness in the debate, but Republicans contributed some silliness of their own. A number of speakers claimed the Obama Administration pushed for the delay at the behest of transition adviser R. Gerard Salemme, executive vice-president of wireless carrier Clearwire. Because AT&T and Verizon plan to use the spectrum to compete with Clearwire's Clear WiMAX service, they argued, it stands to benefit from a delay in the release of the spectrum. They can make a theoretical argument, but no one produced any evidence that either Salemme or Clearwire were involved in the decision. And in any event, Clearwire's real problem is raising the vast amounts of money it needs to build out its WiMAX network, not the potential competition, which both AT&T and Verizon say is unlikely to materially effect their rollout plans.

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