The New York Times is reporting that Obama’s transition team is urging Congress to delay the February 17 cutoff date for analog broadcasting. The team is particularly concerned that the federal coupon program which subsidizes the cost of converter boxes has temporarily run out of funds, and that the department responsible for distributing the coupons is about to be overwhelmed by requests. Some high-ranking Democrats and owners of major networks have indicated that they will support a delay.
Anyone feeling a bit of deja vu? Technology has existed since the 1980s that would allow terrestrial broadcasters to replace their analog signal with a digital one. Over the ensuing decades, the United States has been acutely interested in this switch, primarily because digital signal requires much less spectrum than analog. The liberated spectrum—or the freed-up public airwaves—can be auctioned off by the U.S. government, most likely for use in wireless telecommunications services. In 1997, Congress passed legislation that set an analog cutoff deadline of December 31, 2006. By mid-2005, however, less than 4 percent of households had TVs that were capable of receiving a digital signal. Then in February 2006, Congress acknowledged that the move to digital had floundered and passed new legislation that set a hard deadline of February 17, 2009. Or not so hard, apparently.
In an article soon be published in the Oregon Law Review, Professor Erik Lillquist and I use the attempted switch to digital to argue that our government, with its careful system of checks and balances, is ill-suited to legislate about rapidly-moving technologies. One reason is that the technology may be significantly less relevant by the time government actually acts. Another possibility is that the technology the government seeks to promote will remain important, so much so that it will eventually take off on its own without governmental intervention. In either case, government resources are better spent elsewhere.
Here another delay in the analog cutoff date may help guarantee that the government-engineered digital TV revolution is mostly irrelevant. For a while now, media outlets have been reporting that Americans are abandoning traditional television sets for programs that are streamed directly to their computers. The Consumers Electronic Show, taking place right now in Las Vegas, is featuring technology designed to facilitate the connection between the Web and TV screens.
Hindsight suggests that we may have been better off if the government had just stuck to its deadline back in 2006. Then, as now, there was particular concern that the population that relies on analog television is disproportionately poor, minority, or elderly. But Congress knew this when it tried to engineer the switch to digital. The government could just abandon its efforts and wait until traditional TV goes the way of the dodo. But with at least $1.3 billion in sunk subsidies already, Congress isn’t just going to give up. But regardless of whether Congress extends the deadline another two months or another two years, I bet that I’ll be able to write another post about how the United States is wringing its hands about whether now is finally the right moment to go digital.