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DTV Transition: What’s A Few More Months?

While the pros and cons of deferring the DTV transition were well debated leading up to the decision to set the new date at June 12, it would be good if the underlying benefits of the transition itself come more into focus over the next four months, even as everyone scrambles to ready the remaining over-the-air homes and institutions.

Because of the advancing recession, and real concerns among us all about personal spending, some may think the government is forcing this change at the wrong time.  And because national policy debate continues even as the economy worsens, it could be tempting to label the delay itself as simply proof of yet another government failure, but the vast majority of investments and preparations have already been done for the DTV switchover; so, one hopes the next few months will be used wisely to help the remaining few.  

To be sure, it is incumbent on all stakeholders to do whatever it takes to be sure no one is left behind in the DTV transition for want of information.  The good news is that more than 95 percent of households are aware of the transition and know it’s up to them to do what’s needed — with the help of government converter-box coupons, with subscriptions to pay-TV services or with the myriad of affordable DTV products that have been available for years. And with this accomplished, the nation should be able, over the next few years, to get through the important and final transition of all its low-power and translator stations, as well.  

But after having:

1. Heard about HDTV for some 30 years, some 10 years after NHK’s earliest developments in 1969 (spearheaded by the far-sighted Dr. Maseo Sugimoto); and

2. Waited since the 1981 first demonstration by NHK of HDTV in the U.S. (arranged by the ‘Father of U.S. HDTV’, CBS’s Joe Flaherty); and

3. Worried over the ups and downs of HDTV politics since the 1985 Dubrovnik world radio body debate on a global standard (assimilated brilliantly by Dr. Robert Hopkins, executive director of America’s all-industry Advanced Television Systems Committee); and

4. Studied the U.S. position through the 1986 Congressional hearings on U.S. advanced TV policy (launched by the energetic and enthusiastic leadership of Rep. Edward Markey, as House Communications Committee chairman); and

5. Worked through the 10-year Federal Communication Committee (FCC) Advisory Committee assessment, development, competitive testing and best-of-the-best system recommendation process (lead by the extraordinary and estimable Dick Wiley); and

6. Helped rescue the adoption of the ATSC standard from a long-delayed FCC approval process (through the brilliant leadership and personal moxie of Commissioner Susan Ness); and

7. Watched the new all-digital TV signals obtain their new channels allocated so precisely through the diligence and long-hours of detailed work by the terrific engineers and scientists of the FCC and MSTV, and yes, attorneys of the broadcasters (herded, as it were, by Covington & Burling’s brilliant and exacting Jonathan Blake); and

8. Wondered at the 1997 launch of the first commercial HDTV station at CBS-affiliated WRAL-DTV in Raleigh, N.C. (spirited and financed, while waiting for HDTV sets to hit the market, by the determined and dedicated Jim Goodmon); and

9. Delighted in the sale of the first HDTVs in August 1998 by Panasonic after speedy development work on the first all-format digital decoder-formatter LSIs for consumer TVs in its N.J. labs (lead by the unstoppable and ingenious Jukka Hamalainen); and

10. Thrilled at the overwhelming consumer enthusiasm for HDTV and the success of ATSC in the market for TVs and HD programming — brought by hundreds of manufacturers and program producers around the world …                        

… it seems to me that a few more months, all things considered and despite the anticipation, will seem to speed by!

And as great as ubiquitous HDTV, growing multicasting and better picture and audio quality are that all have come with the DTV transition, I believe the best is yet to come.

It will come in the form of improved, interoperable emergency and first-responder communications using some former TV channels already allocated to these crucial needs, as well as more spectrum and maybe even commercial-shared channels yet to come.

It will come in extraordinary new wireless Internet and other communications services riding on licensed airwaves already auctioned and just awaiting post-transition release from TV stations, and in the intense use of unlicensed spectrum, in both low and high bands, to connect more and more of these services with more and more new mobile devices. 

It will come in the form of over-the-air broadcasting system improvements, which have already given broadcasting a chance to compete by rescuing this vital, nationwide service from its analog island in the middle of an otherwise all-digital sea of cable, satellite, telco, powerline, Web-based and packaged media competitors. 

And best will surely come in the opportunities for new products and services, commercial and public, that will respond to and grow from any or all of these fundamental changes.

The value of all these things are well beyond the mere $20 billion paid at auction so far for returned “analog” channels — and $20 billion sure doesn’t sound like much to the US Treasury anymore! — and I believe they are immeasurable in terms of social value to society. 

Peter Fannon, Panasonic North America Technology Policy, Government & Regulation VP, directs legislative and government affairs for Panasonic.  Before joining Panasonic in 1997, he was active in digital television development as the president of the Advanced Television Test Center (ATTC), the official laboratory for testing new TV broadcast systems submitted to the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service (ACATS) of the FCC.