Tuesday, January 27, 2009

All Aboard For June 12th [NOT SO FAST!!]

Well, with the unanimous passage in the Senate of the DTV delay bill, it doesn't look as though much can get in its way once it's taken up by the House. The old countdown is just about dead.

I'll have more in the next few days on June 12th's chances for being the real,no fooling end to this process.

UPDATE (WED, 1/28): Well, I guess I shouldn't assume. The House has just defeated the attempt to pass the delay bill "on suspension" (an expedited process that requires a 2/3rds vote). The vote totals (258 for delay to 168 against) show that the bill would pass easily if it went through the usual (i.e. full debate, amendments, etc.) process. The question is, will delay proponents reintroduce the measure with time running out? I have already seen one local station that had dropped its crawl start it up again.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

One Month (???) and Counting: Will We or Won't We?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than one month until the date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is scheduled to cease - but suddenly all of that is in doubt, with the "date certain" now anything but. This was supposed to be the 34th and last monthly recap of developments affecting the various players in this story (with more frequent updates leading up to The Day). However, 12 days ago I wrote a post describing how we got here (followed by one on the Hawai'i transition), so instead of trying to recap the whole last month I will just bring you up to speed on the various aspects of this story. Many of these links come courtesy of this AVS thread that has been tracking the evolving situation - my thanks to all the posters who put them up originally.

New voices were heard from on both sides of the delay debate. Current FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps joined the two former FCC Chairs in the pro-delay camp (though fellow Commissioner Robert McDowell still believes the date can be saved, but only if the FCC itself is better able to handle the avalanche of calls that will be coming in). And Verizon, once opposed to the switch, now has joined fellow telco AT&T in support provided the delay is only for a few months.

Those who want to keep the date as is include outgoing FCC Chair Kevin Martin (who would prefer to just fix the coupon program) and wireless companies (who not only paid a collective $20 billion in the spectrum auction, but much besides with their investments in next-generation mobile broadband technology). Also, I speculated in my previous post about the probable concerns of local broadcasters (additional costs to continuing to run two transmitters, etc.) - here are two articles reflecting those concerns.

But who supports or opposes this idea may be irrelevant fairly soon, as legislation to implement it is moving ahead. After Sen. Jay Rockefeller's bill (which did nothing but move the date to June 12) failed to pass by unanimous consent due to Republican opposition, Rep. Henry Waxman's more comprehensive bill (which includes provisions for fixing the coupon program, mandating the FCC to come up with a plan allowing some use of the auctioned spectrum by its new owners and allowing analog stations to leave the air voluntarily) was put on hold, and it was even thought that they might opt to just keep the date as is. However, Sen. Rockefeller then managed to get Kay Bailey Hutchinson (the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee) to co-sponsor a new version that also strengthens the coupon program and allows for voluntary shutdown. In addition, it allows for the use of the spectrum allocated for public safety (in response to Sen. McCain's concerns on that matter). My guess is that if this passes next week it will reactivate the Waxman bill in the House.

So if these pass, it looks like what could come out of the conference committee is a bill that mandates some shutdowns (to clear pubic-safety spectrum and whatever the FCC orders for wireless broadband use) and allows other stations to leave the air voluntarily. What the eventual coupon provisions would be I can't say (Waxman's bill allows for an immediate backlog cleanout, but not Rockefeller's).

All in all, this sounds like a really messy business. The "underserved" communities that are the focus of concern for those advocating their interests will still lose a lot of stations and the rest of the public will still have to have all of this explained to them. Some stations who want to shut down will not be able to (or to go to full power) because of analog stations that are still using the spectrum designated for the first station's final assignment. And there's this as well - Sen. Rockefeller has left open the possibility of future delays based on a definition of "substantial progress" that may not take into account the fact that a certain percentage of the population simply will not change unless they absolutely have to (more on this point below).

So, given all the above is it still possible to save Feb. 17th? Though the next week or so may make the argument moot, let's look at the main objections cited by delay supporters.

First, the coupon program. This is the easy part, authorize some more funds and mandate First Class delivery so that even those who are caught off guard can get their converters within days, not weeks. In addition, the Obama team was widely known and praised for its tech-savviness, so the new administration might be able to quickly modify the coupon site to allow for a printable coupon (with the necessary unique identifying info). They might even be able to set up a simple site for retailers to log in and get e-coupon authorization at the point of sale. Who knows, that might even allow the retailers to be reimbursed more quickly than when submitting all those pieces of plastic (if that's how it works, I admit that I don't know the actual process here).

Secondly, reception difficulties with the converter boxes. This is a real problem, but I don't know how much better it can get by June 12. In addition, it was a revelation to me to learn that at least some of the problem is due to many stations' inability to get their digital signal to full power due to existing analog signals (maybe a commenter can explain the technical details here?), so that a full shutdown is in fact part of the solution to the reception problem. I certainly think it should be a post-shutdown priority to do as much as possible as quickly as possible to get those signals up to full power with as wide a coverage area as possible. In the meantime, I imagine that people will find it easier to muddle through with some stations than with none.

Lastly, the fact that members of certain communities (the poor, the very old, nursing home residents, non-English speakers, etc.) may still somehow be unaware or unsure of what to do at this point. I've expressed my concerns about this all through the run of this blog, but I'm also aware that life is imperfect and there are limits to what you can do. The public education campaigns may have started late and may be flawed, but they have truly been at saturation levels the last few months - those who have chosen not to pay attention cannot completely escape responsibility for the results. And as stated above, there are those who will simply resist change as long as they can. If the once "certain" date is changed to accommodate them, what will make them take June 12th any more seriously? The government could easily find itself in a position similar to that of Bullwinkle J. Moose trying again and again to pull that rabbit out of his hat ("this time for sure"!). Though I've stated my dismay at the hostile tone taken by anti-delay commentators towards the unready, these are valid points that no amount of good intentions can sweep under the carpet. And as noted above, if the coupon program fix includes expedited delivery, that inconvience will be measured in days, not weeks. If not, perhaps the more effective path for those political activists that have built their lives around serving the underserved would be to focus their energies on stepping up and organizing their friends, neighbors and supporters to help deal with these problems as they arise in their communities. I'm sure there are converter box (and possibly even antenna) manufactures out there that would jump at the chance to reap the public relations benefits of partnering with such groups to provide free or heavily-discounted equipment to the most impacted (as well as loaning their best tech-support people to provide instruction and installation).

My conclusion, then, is much as it was 12 days ago - the "least bad" option is to immediately fix the coupon program and forge on. But if I had to guess, we'll probably be dealing with most of these arguments again in a few months.

In which case, what happens next with this blog? I was originally going to do a "Three Weeks and Counting" recap on or soon after Jan 27th, but the delay in getting out this post makes that extremely unlikely. If we are still counting down to Feb. 17th on Feb. 3rd, I will try to post a two-weeks-out recap ASAP, but if the date is moved before then I'm not sure what my publication schedule will be. I've been making my own "post-shutdown" plans for what I want to do with my spare time after wrapping up this blog, and I'm not sure if I have any big recaps left in me after The (Original) Day. I may just adopt the mode of most blogs and only comment on individual events or trends that seem to truly merit it - we'll see.

And that's all I have for now!


Sunday, January 18, 2009

In Hawai'i, Transition Goes Off On Schedule

I haven't been giving the Hawai'i early (Jan 15th) transition the kind of extensive coverage I gave to Wilmington, N.C., mostly because the local media refused to treat it as anything that was very important (and there seemed to be little of the FCC handholding that was evident in Wilmington). Along the way, we found out that the early date was unconnected to any wish to be a pioneer, but rather due to the need to avoid conflict between the demolition of the analog towers and the nesting season of an endangered local bird species.

This no-big-deal approach seems to be in force even after the fact. Just a couple of days after the transition, this story from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin is not linked from either from the site's front page, or even from the front page of the Business section where it appeared (I had to use site search to find it). Both the article and this video from station KITV describe a fairly smooth process (the FCC call-center workers interviewed in the video reported fewer calls than expected). Most of the calls appear to concern problems with installation and use of converter boxes rather than a lack of awareness of the transition itself. But not everything was roses - one of the comments left on the newspaper article was from a reader who was unable to get any digital channels with her converter and who was now "resigned to watching movies and getting news from the computer". Still, there seems to be no sign of public outcry over missing channels.

With the current uncertainties concerning the overall transition, the Hawai'ian experience will surely receive a lot of scrutiny in Washington. Whether they draw more lessons from the lack of outcry or from the experiences of people like the one who left the comment I just quoted remains to be seen.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Voices In Opposition

There's 35 days to go to the analog shutdown - or is there?

When I started this blog nearly three years ago, one of things I wondered about the most was if or when we would begin to see signs of real opposition to the change. I never discounted this possibility, largely because I know a lot of people who have no particular interest in DTV and their opinion at the time I started out was that this date would surely be pushed back once again. As time went on it seemed they were being proven wrong. Though occasionally you would see a site such as stopsnow.rccrg.info which would urge slowing things down if necessary to ensure that the poor and the old are not left behind, they didn't seem to be having much visibility or presence.

Then came the first early transition (Wilmington, N.C.) and word that call centers were flooded with thousands of calls despite extensive handholding by the government (including the giving away of large numbers of converter boxes). Many of these calls concerned reception problems, and helped to raise awareness of the fact that many digital stations may end up with a smaller reception area than their analog predecessors. Still, there were no reports of widespread public outrage, and we have to assume that in the end people made the adjustments that had to be made (possibly including a new antenna) or decided instead that continuing to receive TV just wasn't worth the additional effort and expense.

In the meantime, however, awareness of these reception problems has been growing (check the comments section of this article.) Anecdotally, I've been noticing more and more comments of that type in local (non-videophile) bulletin boards and from people I know. This problem in itself might not have led to a rethinking of the deadline, but then came another major stumbling block - the coupon program ran out of money and more than a million people signed up for the program's waiting list within a few days (with hundreds of thousands of new requests coming in daily). Apparently the accelerating fiscal downturn has made more people opt for a converter (as opposed to a new TV) than the program's designers could have envisioned back in pre-recession days. While new money will be released as older coupons expire, the rate of requests currently is far greater than it was 90 days ago, so you can see where this trend is headed.

And apparently this was enough to start the ball of reconsideration rolling. On Wednesday, January 7th, Consumer Reports urged the government to delay the transition, followed in quick succession by the Obama transition team, two ex-FCC chairs, and at least three of the four major networks (with CBS being "open to the suggestion").

Committed transition supporters, were, to put it mildly, not amused by any of this, as you can see from reading the comment sections on these posts. Collectively, they express exasperation bordering on contempt for those who are at risk for being left behind, apparently convinced that this is all about lack of awareness rather than lack of resources or anger over having spent their money only to get less coverage than they had before. Perhaps it's not so surprising that a sample drawn from people who frequent technology websites might have a little trouble accepting that there actually are a fair number of people out there for whom paying full price for a converter (or a new antenna) might have an effect on whether their kids get new clothes this winter.

The point is also raised that there is no constitutional right to have television in the first place. But perhaps those who say so should take a moment to consider this from an eminent domain perspective. Millions of Americans paid their money for a device that still works perfectly well (an analog TV), and may do so for decades to come, for the specific purpose of watching broadcast television. Now a government mandate has rendered that core functionality worthless, degrading the value of their property. When the government takes your property (let's say they need your land for a new freeway off-ramp) you are owed fair compensation. Why should the same principle not apply when the government makes your property less valuable?

But there are more substantial objections to changing everything so close to February 17. Since April the government has been pounding out the message that this change is going to take place on a certain date, and the potential for mass confusion is very real if this happens not to be the case (who wants to write the next series of PSAs?). And though the networks appear to be OK with this, their local affiliates may not be, having made their plans to stop leasing transmission towers (which leases now may be too late to extend) as well as having redone their budgets to include the substantial electricity savings they've been counting on achieving, as Gary Shapiro of the Consumer Electronics Association points out. And then there's the public safety agencies (AKA first responders) who have been counting on spectrum in the 700Mz band (so perhaps we should exempt at least that slice of spectrum from any delay). Not to mention the companies who have ponied up $20 billion for the rest of that spectrum. How long before we have to give that money back?

What, then, is the best outcome, or the least bad one in any case? My own hope is that the threat of this delay will cause a rapid unblocking of coupon distribution (and that all expired coupons be made usable again). In addition, with all the money we are plunking down for economic stimulus and financial stabilization, perhaps it wouldn't be too crazy to offer a direct tax credit for monies spent out-of-pocket (on converters and antennas alike) by consumers to restore this basic function to their TVs, one of the only forms of affordable entertainment for millions of Americans, and often a main source of companionship and connection for the sick and the elderly.

One more thing. If this date moves, what happens to the schedule for this blog? Until the date actually moves (or seems very likely to do so), I will keep "counting down". But whether we go with this date or another, the tightening of focus I adopted recently remains in effect. If you look in the "Blogroll" section on the left, you will see some good resources for HD coverage. From now on, the broadcast transition story is the only one you'll read about here.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Please stand by...

I was going to do a post on the problems surrounding the coupon redemption program, but a new development reported today takes precedence over that - President-elect Obama would like to delay the transitionfor an unspecified time. I'll have more on this sometime this weekend.

UPDATE OK, so it's taking a bit longer. Tuesday for sure!