Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Don't Delay the DTV Transition

The mere suggestion by President-elect Obama's transition team that the February 17 DTV transition date be postponed has already made the prospect of the analog TV cutoff more problematic than it otherwise would be. Human nature being what it is, many people who either were already readying themselves for the switch – or were about to rouse themselves to get ready for the switch – have or will stop dead in their tracks. Why get a converter box and hook it up now if nothing is going to happen for at least several months?

Despite all of Ben Franklin's admonitions ("A stitch in time…") and those since, procrastination is a powerful element of human nature.

Even though the suggestion that the cutoff date be delayed already has created some confusion, it seems to me, all things considered, that the preferable course still is to quash the delay talk and go forward with the February 17 implementation date. First, and most importantly, consider human nature again. If the government postpones the date, despite any and all protestations to the contrary ("Believe me this time when I say your analog signal will be cut off!), a large number of people won't take seriously any new date. After all, let's be honest: For many months now, it has been difficult for most of us to avoid the barrage of warnings concerning the February 17 transition date.

No doubt the DTV transition program - from awarding coupons to government education to manning call centers - could have been done better. But, in truth, much has already been accomplished by many in preparing for the cutoff. The focus now should be forward-looking, with efforts directed to making the February 17 date work as well as possible. For example, legislation could be passed allowing the NTIA to issue a reasonable number of additional coupons even before current coupons expire in recognition that the redemption rate will not be 100 percent. If need be, consideration can be given to appropriating more funds for even more coupons. More people can be hired to man the call centers and so forth.

Postponement of the implementation date jeopardizes the accomplishment of important public policy objectives. It almost certainly would delay getting a portion of the to-be-vacated spectrum into the hands of public safety agencies. And it almost certainly will delay use of the to-be-vacated spectrum for deployment of new next generation wireless broadband services. Indeed, President-elect Obama has been especially vocal about his desire to promote more broadband deployment.

Even with the best efforts, and regardless of when the cutoff takes place, there will always be some (unknowable and uncountable) number of people who will not be ready, no matter the efforts made by the private sector and the government. I do not mean to minimize the disruption and inconvenience to these people. And I understand that the people who will not be prepared at cutoff are, on the whole, perhaps more likely to be less well off than those who will be ready. (Of course, in a very (over)broad sense, the coupon program is intended to address concerns about any economic hardships associated with the transition.)

At bottom, having long ago committed to a firm date, it seems to me the best course is to continue to make an all-out effort to make the transition work as smoothly as possible, understanding that, inevitably, there will be a real need to address special problems and needs for several weeks in the aftermath. It was always predictable that there would need to be some period of intense post-cutoff attention and assistance.

Finally, President-elect Obama has proven to be a very effective communicator. And, at times, he has rightly emphasized the need for our citizens to exercise more personal responsibility, and he has extolled the need for common efforts to achieve a public good. There is a large element of the common public good, of course, in implementing the DTV transition and freeing up the analog spectrum sooner rather than later. And assumption of personal responsibility plays a significant role in accomplishing the transition with as little disruption as possible.

President-elect Obama has many important matters on his plate, many of greater import than the DTV transition. But I have the sense that, with Mr. Obama's eloquence, if he were to utter a few choice words of encouragement, perhaps even a call to action in his inaugural address, we can get over the February 17 finish line in better fashion than now envisioned.