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The Digital-TV Shift: Just Do It

President-elect Barack Obama wants to delay the Feb. 17 transition to digital broadcasting, claiming that poor, rural and elderly residents won't be ready for the cutoff of analog TV signals.

It's a bad idea that's gaining traction, in part because so many are so eager to please a new president.

Obama's team is joined by Consumers Union, a lobbying group which also called for an analog cutoff delay. Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) supports delaying the Feb. 17 date, echoing comments by a growing number of lawmakers. Former FCC chairmen William Kennard and Michael Powell wrote that going forward would produce a “train wreck” for consumers.

Since President Bush signed the date into law nearly three years ago, broadcasters and cable operators have spent more than $1.25 billion etching the transition date in the brains of TV viewers to avoid confusion. Moreover, manufacturers and retailers say they can meet consumer demand. If the federal government changes the dates now, when 95% of the viewing public is ready, imagine how many people will really be in the dark by changing the date.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, the senior Republican on the commerce panel, put it best: “Shifting the date this close to the transition, without a sound plan to share information about the new transition date, will likely result in significant confusion.”

The $1.34 billion coupon program, run by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is now in limbo under current budget law. It can't issue any new coupons for digital-to-analog converter boxes, creating a waiting list for 1 million coupons.

The procrastinators' main concern: as many as 7 million homes will be without television if analog signals are cut off. No one can verify that figure, and besides, there's still time to close the gap.

There's also a better way: why not target those homes after the switch? In affected communities, why not offer a “soft” switch in which affected viewers could be directed, on-screen, to get a converter? What about the millions of dollars allocated to call centers? Or might it be cheaper to just mail a converter directly to affected viewers?

A delay will have negative consequences for sure. It will postpone plans by wireless providers to use the spectrum that will be freed up for emergency-response networks and commercial services. And it will cost taxpayers more money.

Perhaps an answer lies with Rep. Edward Markey (D. Mass.) who is proposing in a draft bill to retain the Feb. 17 cutoff of analog TV signals, but would waive a budget rule to allow the NTIA to crank up the coupon program.

The truck is packed. The tank is gassed. We've all got our seat belts on. Let's get the show on the road.