Edgelings

Snow Storm?

SNOW STORM by Charlie Martin
On February 17th, there will be a dramatic change in how we broad and receive television signals: the old analog channels will be eliminated (except for some small, low-power, specialized uses) and the whole country will move to digital TV broadcasting.

A lot of people believe this is mainly to provide high-definition television, but in fact there are lots of other advantages: most notably, the frequency band used by existing TV can now be dedicated to cellular telephone channels and more emergency services. The transition to digital will mean not only that there can be high-definition broadcasts, but that there will be more room for more television channels in general; and broadcast TV will be able to compete with cable again for the number of channels, quality of signal, and variety of programming it can offer.

The impending change-over has been endlessly advertised on television, radio, on billboards and in newspapers, so that no one will be surprised when, on February 17th, they turn on their old-fashioned analog TVs and find nothing there but static and “snow.”

Except, now, maybe it won’t.  Consumers Union has sent a letter to Rep. Ed Markey and others urging the government to extend the deadline, because the government program to help pay for digital converter boxes is running out of money.

Here’s how it worked: in order to help make the transition, the federal government instituted a program through the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and information Administration to provide anyone who requested them as many as two $40 vouchers to buy digital converters for their analog televisions.  The converters are available on the internet for as little as $29.

The problem is that the government has already sent out many of these coupons, some of which haven’t been used.  Until they actually expire, though, they’re a liability to the government.  On 7 January, the NTIA announced it would stop processing the coupon requests, because under government accounting rules, they couldn’t issue new coupons until some of the unused coupons expire.  So, just as it’s getting close to the deadline, the NTIA is unable to process more requests.

Consumer Union’s solution is to put off the transition for some unspecified time, as well as provide for changes in accounting rules, or simply more funding, for the converter subsidy program.  Putting off the conversion has its own problems, though — until the conversion, television stations have to maintain two separate broadcastsystems, with separate transmitters and antennae — and that’s expensive.  In addition, the spectrum to be freed up has already been sold at auction to other companies that expect to be able to begin using it.  So if the transition is put off, those companies will lose money, and all the advantages of moving to digital — new television channels, new cellular services, and new emergency services communications — will be lost.

This doesn’t mean just losing some new services; television stations have been maintaining two separate  and expensive transmission systems.  If the transition is delayed, they won’t be able to cut those costs.

So, on the one hand, delay the transition, and it hurts a lot of companies just at the time that continuing funding could be hard to come by; which could mean losses of jobs that no one wants to see.  On the other hand, if it goes forward, there will be people who won’t be getting TV reception, and however you allocate the fault, it will be on the watch of the new Administration and Congress.

It appears that, no matter what the advantages, the incoming Obama Administration has decided it would rather avoid the possibility of being blamed for grandma’s “snow storm”.  Just today, Obama surrogate John Podesta wrote the House and Senate Commerce Committees asking them to extend the deadline.  It seems that emergency services will just have to wait.