The analog TV shutdown

I will admit to an exasperated sigh when I heard that President-elect Obama’s transition team had sent a letter to Congress urging it to delay the shutoff of analog TV broadcasts, now scheduled to go off the air on February 17th. The deadline was set by Congress in 2006, and the spectrum to be vacated was auctioned off last year, raising roughly $20B for the government.

So why postpone? The NTIA program that subsidizes the purchase of digital to analog converter boxes (“Coupon Eligible Converter Boxes”) with $40 coupons is out of money. There’s a backlog of orders that is only growing. Given that we are but a month from the shutdown deadline, the odds of all orders being met, particularly since they will likely swell in the next month, are slim. (The proposed stimulus prepared by the House of Representatives contains $650M for this purpose. Bravo. With that said, unless those devices are already made and are sitting at the ready, getting them out to households in time for the shutdown is a tall order.)

I heard the news of the Obama team’s request at a press event announcing ATSC Mobile DTV (ATSC-Mobile/Handheld), so the past and present of broadcast TV in the US seemed to converge in one crowded room.

A general rule of thumb, used by the CE industry, is that about 15% of US households are fully dependent on terrestrial broadcast TV. Assuming 110M HHs in the US, that’s about 16M HHs, and further assuming population is spread equally over households, that’s between 45-50M people. Broadcast TV itself has about 98% population reach, or basically that of telephony, and close to that of electricity.

Various media outlets, based on research by Nielsen, have estimated that at present, close to 8M households are not ready for the DTV transition. That is certainly a substantive number, from a variety of perspectives – market size, advertisers, and yes, electoral. The LA basin alone allegedly has 500,000 viewers who are unprepared. That also means that despite three years of lead time, 50% of over-the-air-only households aren’t ready.

Hawaii shuts off analog today, one month early, for a variety of reasons. As a geographically isolated area with a small population, it makes for a useful, manageable testbed. It is telling that much of the feedback received by FCC call centers involves either tech support for installing DTV-to-analog converter boxes, or general information on what the DTV transition means. Hawaii’s experience will likely be very informative.

Households still dependent on free, terrestrial, rabbit ear-based TV also tend to not have broadband. They also tend to be less affluent. In effect, a haphazard DTV transition would most impact those who are already disadvantaged. Broadcast TV also has Emergency Alert Service carriage obligations (link to old contributed article on this subject). TV transmitters and studios have backup power. Unlike cell networks, which often go down during disasters due to either excessive call loads or power outages, TV generally stays on the air. Katrina was a good example of this. Broadcasters, both TV and radio, generally stayed on the air until diesel supplies ran out. (Now, the receivers probably needed batteries or handcranks, but that’s another story.)

GigaOM and others have commented that a delay in the analog shutdown would cause a delay in the use of auctioned analog TV spectrum for 4G wireless services by AT&T and Verizon. With that said, neither carrier plans to go live with commercial service this year, for reasons of both vendor readiness and capital investment considerations. It is noteworthy that AT&T doesn’t seem to mind the prospect of a delay of, say, a quarter or so, and neither do some of the broadcasters, who aren’t excited about disenfranchising viewers. CTIA has commented that a delay in the shutdown would call into question the validity of the spectrum auction process. With that said, a quarter’s delay would not materially impact the wireless industry, with the exception of Qualcomm, which wants to use additional auction spectrum (Ch 55 on your dial) to augment MediaFLO mobile TV service coverage.