In the wake of another apparently failed attempt to clear the 700 MHz band, it's hard to believe that the transition to digital television looked like a relatively easy win for everybody a decade ago.

It was supposed to work something like this: Consumers would get to view crystal-clear pictures while enjoying innovative new services made capable by the new technology. They would enjoy these on new TVs, which would make the manufacturers happy. They would pay extra for the new services, bolstering the bottom lines of broadcasters and cable/satellite operators.

The best part was that digital TV signals are much more spectrally efficient than their analog counterparts, so fewer frequencies would be required. That would free enough premium airwaves to designate 24 MHz for public-safety communications needs and still leave large swaths of spectrum to auction to private wireless companies, which would use the airwaves to provide advanced services. These advanced services would boost the economy, and Congress was eager to get its hands on the tens of billions of dollars raised in the auction.

It was a great plan -- and still is -- but the whole thing unraveled when consumer demand for digital television fell far below expectations, meaning it could take decades before 85% of the population has TVs that can receive digital signals, the trigger for broadcasters to vacate the band under current law.

It's a chicken-and-egg debate. Cable operators say they'll carry all available digital signals when there's consumer demand for it, while broadcasters say demand will increase only if cable operators are required to carry every digital signal, as well as analog signals. At the same time, many consumers say their analog TV picture is just fine -- especially when they look at the prices of digital sets.

Whatever the reason, demand has not been rousing to date, making it tougher for television manufacturers to drop prices of the digital sets, which hasn't helped matters any.

Nor has the fact that there are powerful political forces at work here. Not only are broadcasters one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, D.C., I still remember a short lesson a Texas city councilman gave me as a young reporter years ago:

"The fact is, 90% of the people in this town could care less what we're doing," he said. "A lot of mistakes are overlooked as long we take care of the basics -- you know, keep the lights on, make sure the water's running, pick up the garbage. And, whatever you do, don't mess with their TV, if you want to get re-elected."

The comment was made in reference to the local cable franchise, but this political reality also applies to over-the-air broadcasts in the 700 MHz debate. In a society where winning elections by less than 10% of the vote is commonplace, telling more than 10% of the electorate that their analog TVs won't work anymore probably isn't feasible.

What is feasible? Sen. John McCain's proposal this week to dedicate $1 billion in subsidies for converters that would let analog TVs receive digital signals is evidence that some elected officials are willing to consider unusual ideas to clear this valuable spectrum. What's next, a 2008 presidential campaign that modernizes Franklin Roosevelt's "chicken in every pot" rallying cry into "an HDTV in every home"?

Seriously, though, it appears that some extraordinary measures will have to be taken for public safety and wireless operators to have a shot at using this spectrum. The encouraging note for both groups is that the potential economic and social benefits that would come from clearing the 700 MHz spectrum warrant such action.

Just don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

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