Procrastinators win, public safety loses
The inevitable happened yesterday, as House members followed the lead of their Senate colleagues by approving a four month-delay in the deadline for broadcasters to cease transmitting in analog and to begin transmitting in digital. FCC Acting Chairman Michael Copps said in a statement that he welcomed the extension because it would provide “urgently-needed time for a more phased transition.” Huh? Isn’t a phased transition something that was supposed to be happening all along?
This wasn’t exactly rocket science. If you aren’t a cable or satellite customer and have an analog television, you need a converter box. If you need a converter box, the federal government said it would send you a coupon to help you pay for it. All you had to do was request one. The government even made that easy by setting up a website.
The word has been out about this for three years. Yet, all sorts of people are without converter boxes. How is this possible? How did these people miss this message? It couldn’t have been simpler. Yet, one of my best friends stands among those who have caused the DTV delay. She’s no dummy. She holds multiple degrees from prestigious universities. Despite her above-average intelligence and finely honed knowledge of current events, she waited too long and now is on the wait list for her coupon. I told her to call her cable company. She should have requested the coupon a year ago—at least.
Some would argue that my friend deserves a break because she submitted her request a couple of months prior to the original Feb. 17, 2009 deadline for broadcasters to make the transition. Certainly, a couple of months should be plenty, right? After all, the IRS is able to remit tax refunds in less time. So, as the thinking goes, my friend—and the 2 million others who are in her boat—shouldn’t be penalized for conditions outside their control.
I couldn’t disagree more. Here’s an analogy to illustrate the point: Say that you take the train to work, that the station is a 5-minute drive from your house and you leave 15 minutes prior to the train’s arrival each day, which should give you plenty of time. Which it does—until something goes wrong. Let’s now say a milk truck overturns on your route and by the time you fight your way through the bottleneck, you arrive at the train station 20 minutes late. Should the train be held for you? Would that be fair to everyone who’s on the train who need to get to their jobs? I think not. Instead, you should have factored in Murphy’s Law and not cut your schedule so close.
Another major factor in the DTV delay is that people who did plan ahead and received a coupon well in advance of the original deadline waited too long to cash them in, and now they have expired. I know people have busy lives, but they had roughly three months to redeem them once they had them in their possession. That should have been plenty of time.
Nevertheless, fairness demands that the significant role played by Congress and the FCC in this fiasco must be noted. For starters, the public never was given an idea of how long it would take to receive a coupon after a request was submitted. If those affected by the DTV transition had received such a heads up, perhaps then many—like my friend—wouldn’t have waited so long to submit their requests.
Also, the feds erred by placing an unnecessary expiration date on the coupons. And Congress failed to act after it was told by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)—the agency that is administering the converter-box program–that the $1.3 billion program nearly was out of money, a circumstance that is causing a delay in providing coupons to the Johnny-come-latelys.
So, most public-safety agencies with pending 700 MHz licenses now have to wait a bit longer to use the 24 MHz of 700 MHz airwaves that were promised to them when President George W. Bush signed the legislation, in February 2006, that established the Feb. 17 deadline for broadcasters to vacate these airwaves. The FCC reportedly is meeting today to discuss the impact of the delay on public safety, but what is the commission going to do? If the broadcasters don’t move for another four months—and it is their prerogative, thanks to the DTV-delay legislation—public safety is stuck in neutral, because there are no channels for them to move to.
While some believe broadcasters won’t wait to move, despite the extended deadline, because it is going to cost them a ton of money to transmit both analog and digital signals—even for just four months—I don’t. Rather, I believe they won’t risk losing scads of viewers that could result in a precipitous decline in advertising revenue, something the broadcasters can ill afford in an already soft advertising climate caused by the steep economic downturn. So they’ll stay put until forced to move.
Four more months doesn’t seem all that long in the grand scheme, you say? Tell that to the public-safety agencies that invested considerable money in systems that they planned to launch on Feb. 18. Some would argue that none of this really matters, because few agencies were so proactive as to be in a position to launch systems right away. That’s like telling someone they can’t board the train that’s scheduled to depart because there are no other passengers on board.
The initiative and planning exhibited by these agencies—few as they might be—stand in sharp contrast to that of the procrastinators, who effectively have derailed their efforts. That is wrong. I’ve long believed that one of the biggest problems our country has is that people all too often are not held accountable for their actions—or in this case, inactions. Congress should not have passed the legislation that extended the DTV deadline. That the procrastinators are unprepared for the transition at this date is their problem. It shouldn’t be public safety’s.
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