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Don't Rush To Give Up Analog

The great confusion and missteps of rescue services and relief efforts in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, even after the experience of 9/11, underscore the value of keeping things that work well while fixing those that may be broken.

While improvements in communications for first responders and supportive government agencies are critically important, they should not come at the expense of citizen safety.

Yet Congress is under fierce pressure to make that false choice: “fix” flawed communications systems used by emergency personnel by dismantling free, local TV broadcasting that saves lives.

Since 1934, Congress has successfully relied on a system of free and universally available local broadcasting stations to provide essential news and information, especially in emergencies.

The evacuation of millions of people before the recent hurricanes struck was largely due to television broadcasters who brought information to mass audiences quickly and efficiently. While the focus after Hurricane Katrina was on the several thousand citizens who remained in New Orleans, hundreds of thousands got out safely.

Nevertheless, forces are at work today in Washington trying to destroy the very system that was most responsible for that evacuation. Moneyed interests—especially those who stand to benefit from sales of WiFi and WiMax technology—are pressing Congress to hasten the deadline for digital-only TV broadcasting. One of their arguments is the promise of revenues for the federal treasury.

The merits of spectrum auctions are legion, but there is no guarantee these auctions will mirror past successes. Like real estate, the value of spectrum has historically appreciated over time as demand for spectrum grows with the development of competing technologies.

An accelerated deadline for the swap to digital-only broadcasting would make spectrum available for other uses, but at what expense to the public? Government subsidies to make converter boxes available will not ensure a smooth, rapid transition unless viewers understand the proposal and hook up boxes before analog is turned off. A premature end to a measured digital transition means stations will lose viewers. That translates into lost revenues and threatens the economic survival of some stations. Unfortunately, the impact will be most harsh in smaller communities, where the needs for universally available, over-the-air broadcasting are the greatest.

By staying the course, federal auction revenues will be maximized and vital local television service will be preserved.