DTV switch better in private sector’s hands

Freedom New Mexico

If you watch TV for more than a few minutes a day, you have probably seen ads and public service announcements about the Feb. 17 changeover from analog to digital television broadcasting.

During the other transition, several officials of the incoming Obama administration have suggested pushing back the transition date three months, and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller has submitted a bill to push the date to June 12.

Why the fumbling and confusion? The short answer is the government, beginning as far back as 1988, decided the transition from analog to digital TV was too important to be left to the “anarchy” of the marketplace. So the Federal Communications Commission, under legislation passed in 1996, has handled this transition. Not surprisingly, it has been driven more by political than by technological or economic considerations.

The cellular telephone industry has made the transition from analog to digital. Did you read articles about the problems? Were you even aware of it? Probably not, because it was handled in the competitive marketplace with a minimum of fuss and feathers.

The advantages of digital TV broadcasting are essentially twofold. Digital broadcasting permits sharper resolution of the picture with a smaller portion of the broadcast spectrum and more efficient broadcasting of high-definition signals. Conversion will also free up the spectrum to allow for more uses of the increasingly popular handheld devices like Blackberries, iPhones and the like.

There are solid market-related reasons for TV stations to switch. But instead of permitting them to do so at their own convenience or when they would alienate the fewest number of customers, the FCC has handled the conversion through mandates.

All television sets sold in the last four or five years are equipped to receive digital signals, and cable and satellite systems also use digital technology. But people with older analog sets — who tend to be older or lower-income people — or those who use their old analog TV sets in secondary household locations, will need a converter box. There’s a government (i.e., taxpayer-funded) program that provides a $40 coupon to help pay for converter boxes. But John Podesta, co-chairman of President Obama’s transition team, says the program has not kept pace with demand and some 2 million people are now on a waiting list for coupons. Thus the pressure to delay the conversion date.

In addition, the characteristics of analog and digital signals are different. Most people will get better reception and more channels with converter boxes and digital signals. But a small percentage of people, mostly in rural areas (the FCC estimates that 11 percent of stations will have a signal that reaches 2 percent fewer viewers) will actually get fewer channels with digital transmission.

It only takes a small number of people affected by a technological change managed and mandated by the government to get politicians posturing and introducing legislation.

Given that the conversion date has been delayed several times already and it costs TV stations to send out both analog and digital signals, which they are doing now, the best bet, despite the fact that there will be a few problems, is probably not to delay the conversion date yet again. But the experience demonstrates that although technological changes always involve some friction, expense and inconvenience (what did you do with all your old vinyl records?), they generally are better handled in the private marketplace than through government management.