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!



At 3:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"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?)"

Not hard to understand. Basically, the dual analog/DTV mandate doubled the number of TV signals on the air, crowding the spectrum. In many cases, a station's assigned DTV channel cannot be run at full-power yet because there is/are one or more analog station(s) on that same channel that are sufficiently close so that running full-power could interfere with their signal in part of their coverage area. Remember, until February 17th or whatever date is ultimately set, analog service still gets priority, and even stations that want/need to temporarily reduce their analog power to do some transmitter prep for DTV have to get permission from the FCC, and they don't look too kindly on any substantial reduction in analog coverage, even if temporary.

Also, remember many stations will switch channels when they kill analog, and in some cases their current (temporary) DTV assignment has no interference issues, but the one they switch to on D-Day may well interfere with another market's analog signal on that channel. This is the problem with a haphazard, partial transition where some stations go fully to DVD and others hang onto analog for a time -- the transition was designed from an engineering standpoint to happen all at once, like flipping a big red switch over the whole country. IT will just be problematic to have some stations hanging onto their analog signals for awhile, some killing analog and settling on their full power DTV channel, others in limbo, wanting to shut off analog, but unable to do so with a full signal or on their final channel because of what nearby markets may be doing. It will be a mess, and if they are going to delay the transition date, they need to do it for everybody at the same time.


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