June 06, 2020

Digital holdup

When Congress mandated the nationwide conversion to digital television back in 1996, it was supposed to work something like this: The new standard would provide the public choices in free over-the-air broadcasts to rival cable and satellite; consumers would be so enamored of the lifelike pictures and sound they would rush out to buy the new sets and the resulting competition among electronics manufacturers would drive prices down; once the conversion was complete, broadcasters would return the spectrum they had been given to offer both analog and digital signals during the transition period, the precious commodity would be auctioned off to other wireless entrepreneurs with an estimated return to the U.S. Treasury of some $70 billion.

Five years later, it’s not working quite as planned. The networks, with CBS the modest exception, are offering scant digital offerings, saying there’s no point in broadcasting signals so few consumers can receive. Consumers are not rushing out to buy the sets, saying the high prices and unresolved squabbles over technology standards make it a bad investment. Manufacturers, who once predicted one in three of America’s 100 million households would have digital sets by 2006, now say it might be more like one in 100. And that auction, experts say, won’t be held in a few years, but perhaps in a couple of decades. If it’s held at all.

Even the relatively mundane aspects of the conversion are running into trouble. Interference remains an unsolved problem, especially in cities. The enormous towers digital broadcasting requires are running afoul of zoning ordinances across the country; in the nation’s capital, residents rose up to stop construction of a tower that would have been one and one-half times taller than the Washington Monument.

If this conversion had been driven solely by the marketplace, as a transaction between willing sellers and buyers, no one would be hurt by the delays. This conversion, however, is driven by law – the Telecommunications Act of 1996 – and some lawmakers who were its staunchest supporters now are its sternest critics.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, lays the blame on the broadcasters, saying they were loaned the free spectrum with the condition that they would use it to advance the digital cause, not to hoard. The political clout broadcasters used to get it, he said recently, is now being used to keep it: “It is one of the great rip-offs in American history. They used to rob trains in the Old West, now we rob spectrum.”

Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana is chairman of the House Telecommunication Committee and one of the most knowledgeable members of Congress on the subject. He is not as outspoken as Sen. McCain – “I think there is a general feeling that this is not going well” – but he is equally concerned that the valuable public property of broadcast spectrum might not be returned. Both he and the senator are planning hearings on digital television early next year. It is unlikely that Congress will force broadcasters to give back the spectrum, but the public should expect more clearly defined conditions for its use and a tighter timetable for its return.

Broadcasters are preparing for the hearings by pointing fingers, principally at the Federal Communications Commission for not forcing cable companies to carry their digital signals. At the same, however, broadcasters say the FCC’s request for business plans on how they would use the extra channels digital will provide – whether for additional programming for the public or for publicly subsidized wireless services – is none of the FCC’s business; government meddling and all that. At least train robbers had the decency to wear masks.

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