The United States House of Representatives voted 264-158 to extend the DTV Transition until June 12th. The vote went largely along party lines with a handful of each party switching sides, but it wasn’t enough to be called a bi-partisan approval. However, it fails me why this should be a partisan issue in the first place. In approving the delay, the House left in the provision that allows TV stations to switch over before June 12th if they choose. This is an appealing option to many stations because of the high cost of running two sets of transmitters. At a price of $0.12KWh, a 100,000W transmitter costs $12/hour to run, $288/day, and $8640/month. A station with a 100,000W transmitter could therfore be expected to spend about $34,560 to keep their transmitter powered until June 12th. Clearly they have incentive to commit to transition early.
The primary reason why many folks voted for this bill was because of a chart that Nancy Pelosi circulated that showed the number of consumers on the waiting list for DTV converter boxes in each congressional district (you can find the chat on Ars Technica’s coverage of the bill). Every single congressional district has between 1200 and 9200 people on the waiting list for coupons – and a shocking 53,372 people in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, every district saw their waiting list increase by at least 100 people, and some as many as 800 over the course of a weekend. Ostensibly, approving a delay would ensure that these 181,013 new households and 1,781,218 previously registered households receive their coupons.
However, the program is out of money. The only way that coupons are being sent out right now is if someone’s coupon expires. If the list were capped at the number of people on it currently, and that seems unlikely, then the government still needs to come up with $156,983,520 to pay for those coupons. Unfortunately, in approving the delay, no provision was made for this funding.
Furthermore, there is no evidence that delaying the transition will actually help people. Two areas have already transitioned to DTV, Wilmington, NC which transitioned as a test in September, 2008, and the entire state of Hawaii, which transitioned last month to not interfere with a species of bird that is active in February. If we look at Hawaii, however, there still are 2,974 people on the waiting list, with 129 new people just last weekend. These are people who failed to submit their coupon request until after the transition happened. My guess is that there’s a lot of grandmas out there who will be in the same boat – in addition to folks who have cable for most of their televisions, but may want to ditch it because of budget concerns (talk about a great lockin for cable companies).
So, now we’re left with an utter mess. Instead of having a solid date for when analog broadcasting dies, stations can choose to switch anytime between Februrary 17 and June 12. My hunch is that within a metro area, not all stations will switch at the same time, just confusing folks more – “I only get the station with the fifth grader show. Where’s my CSI:Albany?” Furthermore, it’s looking more and more unlikely that the government will come through with the estimated $300-$500 million necessary to fund the coupon program – they’ve got bigger things to worry about than whether or not people can continue to watch “How I met your Mother” and “Knight Rider”. Finally, President Obama has yet to sign the bill, but has indicated support for the bill. Therefore all the official advertising, even on dtv2009.gov still lists February 17th as the date.
Yes the transition has come at a really bad time. We’re fighting two wars. Our economy is collapsing. Now, the way they’ve handled transition indicates that it will be a mess for a long time to come. In the end, the winners may be services like Dish network and Comcast, who are sending out millions of flyers around the country advertising budget rate plans starting at $9.99 for local channels. The losers will almost certainly be the people who waited and haven’t requested their coupons, and will be left without whatever crappy summer programs the networks unleash on us in June. But hey, it’s June, it should be nice outside. I hear there’s lots of things to do outside.