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Obama, FCC Chief Clash Over Analog TV Switch-Off

Late last week, President-elect Barack Obama made a particularly public call for a delay to the February digital TV switch-over date. His main concerns are inadequate funding of the public awareness program and problems with the converter box program. But this weekend the FCC’s chairman Kevin Martin wasn’t having any of it.

Late last week, President-elect Barack Obama made a particularly public call for a delay to the February digital TV switch-over date. His main concerns are inadequate funding of the public awareness program and problems with the converter box program. But this weekend the FCC’s chairman Kevin Martin wasn’t having any of it.

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Obama’s request was made in the form of letters to the members of the House and Senate Committees overseeing communications, citing “woefully inadequate” funds supporting the switch-over program, particularly where senior citizens and low-income groups were concerned. Obama’s team is requesting simply that the “the cut-off date for analog signals should be reconsidered and extended,” and suggested that new funding could come from within the planned economic recovery package.

But according to the FCC chairman, speaking at CES, they’ve spent “a lot of time and energy getting ready for the February 17 date.” And specifically in reference to the new request, he’s “concerned about the consumer confusion that would be created.” This seems to be a pointless political answer since the specific problems concerning the incoming administration are about public confusion.

In a tacit admission that the program has run astray, Martin actually proposed a couple of alternatives to the date change: Congress could release more funding, and the 90-day expiration of the DTV coupons could be abolished. These are certainly viable suggestions, even while they don’t address the root cause of the problem. That’s something even FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein acknowledges–also speaking at CES he suggested the program had been “badly mismanaged. It’s not ready for prime time.”

But there are real reasons why the deadline is likely to remain at February 17, regardless of the readiness of the portion of the public who rely on traditional TV– broadcasters simply haven’t budgeted to have two transmission systems online after the switch-off date. Some have even begun to dismantle the engineering infrastructure that supports analog TV signal broadcasts. And to effect a change in the deadline would require the agreement of Congress and some swift political footwork to effect the necessary legal changes in just five weeks.

The plain fact is that even with extra time injected into the switch-over program there will remain a percentage of the population that won’t make the digital change in time. What they’ll do after analog TV signals are no longer available is either switch to cable or satellite if it’s within their economic reach, or simply acquire a digital converter box after the deadline. There’s also the possibility that they’ll not watch TV at all–and that may not be such a bad thing.

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