DTV Transition Plan: Things get Bumpy

DTV conversion box coupon program logoI support the move to digital television (DTV). I think it's being justified with cynical reasons, and I think the transition plan is flawed. But that doesn't mean I don't think we should do it.

Here is what's happening: TV broadcasting currently uses the most prime space of the radio spectrum, and, due to the old analog broadcast standard (NTSC), does so very inefficiently. Moving to a new digital broadcast standard (ATSC) frees up a lot of spectrum. That makes the government happy because they get massive proceeds from selling rights to the released spectrum. That makes industry happy because they can create new wireless services to sell in that spectrum.

You may have heard the reasons why digital television is a benefit for you, Joe and Jolene hapless television consumer. Those benefits are all true—but entirely beside the point The consumer benefits simply make the pill easier to swallow.

Nevertheless, I think retiring NTSC broadcasts is a good thing, and I support the transtion. The problem I have is how we are going about it.

You may have heard about the converter box coupon program. Some people condemn this as a big government giveway—but they're wrong. The coupon program makes the primary beneficiaries of the transtion—industry and government—provide funding to ease the costs to television users.

A coupon program is a good idea. This one, however, has problems. The first problem is that there is a fixed pool of coupons available, and while the signup rate has been pretty high, the redemption rate is very low. Over half of the coupons sent out have gone unused. I fear that the pool of coupons will be exhausted sooner than planned, and the number of people assisted will be much lower than hoped.

The other problem is that there is an unexpectedly short expiration time on the coupons—90 days after mailing. I suspect people are ordering their coupons, putting them in a drawer, and forgetting about them. When February 2009 rolls around and they get ready to use them, they will find the coupons have expired and not replaceable.

I'm also concerned that as the DTV transition plan unfolds, I see people getting more and more confused. I've been talking to the press and participating in public events for almost a year now. While I'm pleased by the rising level of awareness, I'm disturbed by the growing levels of confusion.

I believe the confusion is a necessary consequence of the way the transition was planned. That's because very little funding was allocated for consumer education. Instead, the government decided that industry would be responsible for educating people about the transition.

Industry has risen to the task, but not always in a helpful way. That's because industry perceives the DTV transition as an upsell opportunity. They'll tell you numerous options, usually listing theirs first (buy cable, buy a new TV, etc.) and the low-cost converter box option last.

The problem isn't that they list the options in the wrong order, but that they are creating options at all. If you receive broadcast television by antenna there is only one sensible option: buy the low-cost converter box. At some later time you may decide to buy more cable or buy a new television, but that's a completely separate issue.

I don't blame industry for the bad education campaign. I blame the regulators for giving them that responsibility in the first place.

That's how we've ended up with this confusing "here are your options" education campaign. I fear people are getting frustrated. I am concerned a lot of people will end up making poor decisions and spending money they don't have to.

A proper DTV transition outreach effort would be trying to simplify—not complicate—the matter. A good DTV education campaign would have as its message something like this: If you receive broadcast television you can improve your television experience right now by using a simple, low-cost converter box. That's all it takes to enter the digital television age, and to get yourself ready for the upcoming transition.