DTV Switch Delay Causes Confusion

Published April 1, 2009

Congress and President Barack Obama have caused confusion by delaying the switch to a universal digital television signal, and the extra $650 million for more converter box vouchers is a waste of public funds, experts say.

Shortly before the original February 17 deadline to switch all broadcast signals to digital, Obama signed a bill delaying the change until June 12. That move created chaos in a previously orderly process broadcasters and the federal regulators have worked to bring about for years, according to industry experts.

Adding to the confusion, nearly 500 broadcasters applied to the Federal Communications Commission to be allowed to switch over to digital on the original deadline. The FCC granted 421 of those requests, leaving thousands of TV watchers confused about the switch.

‘Good Faith’ Effort Wasted

Broadcasters now must re-educate the public about the new, June 12 switch date, after spending months on public service announcements publicizing the February 17 deadline. The new effort is an unfunded federal mandate.

“Companies have acted in good faith, spent the money, done the publicity, and had everything ready to go—by edict of Congress, by the way,” said Billie Blair, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based consulting firm Change Strategists, Inc.

“We always counsel our clients to act in straightforward ways and to avoid confusion at all costs—and we go to great lengths to assist them in instituting changes that are confusion-free,” Blair said. “I’m actually glad Congress isn’t one of my clients.”

Increased Engineering Expenses

Adding to the expense, television stations that prepared their budgets based on the old deadline will now have to continue paying engineering costs they thought would be off their books long before.

“Although not all television stations were ready to switch to digital, most were,” said Heather Polinsky, head of the audio unit of Central Michigan University’s School of Broadcast and Cinematic Arts. “They want to shut down their analog signal to save electricity and engineering expenses.”

Also, the delay forces the telecommunications industry to put on hold its plans to use the abandoned analog spectrum to provide more services for handheld devices and expanded wi-fi technology.

“There are many consequences of delaying the deadline,” Polinsky said. “Telecommunications companies have been waiting to get access to new spectrum space since 2006. They do not want to wait any longer.”

Incompetent Management

Blair said she was not surprised to see Congress and federal regulators cause more confusion than necessary, saying they have a “long way to go” when it comes to managing big projects.

“This actually is an organizational management problem,” Blair said. “And, once again, Congress has taken the wrong turn and shown they have no organizational management [acumen]. One wonders when they can ever get anything right.”

When Congress approved the delay, it allocated an additional $650 million for up to two $40 coupons for any American who needs a box to convert the digital signal to analog for their old TVs. That’s on top of $1.35 billion Congress had already allocated for coupons and educational outreach for the original deadline.

Worth the Money?

Supporters insist the additional money was necessary because the first round of spending ran out, but critics note large amounts of waste in the coupon program.

“Although the DTV consumer campaign ran out of money for converter box coupons, the campaign has been running for almost a year,” Polinsky said. “There are consumers that do not have digital television equipment right now. Is it because they did not have enough time, resources, or information? Were these consumers going to wait until their televisions stopped working to act?

“For many consumers,” Polinsky added, “it does not matter when the deadline is. We know there are some unprepared consumers out there, but there is no definite data on how many there truly are. There is no definite data on whether these consumers ever intended on preparing for digital television or if they even want digital television. Will three more months help them or not?”

James G. Lakely ([email protected]is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Infotech & Telecom News.