How the Cable Guy could salvage the DTV transition, and why he's afraid to try.

If you don’t live under a rock, you probably know about the U.S. transition to Digital TV broadcasts coming in February.

If you’ve been following it, you know that the number of people affected, i.e. those who receive only over-the-air television, has constantly been in dispute. The Federal Communications Commission, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, National Association of Broadcasters, National Cable and Telecommunications Association, Consumer Electronics Association, Community Broadcasters Association, and a host of other interest groups with three and four letter abbreviations have all weighed in over the past 3 years (since the “hard date” for cut-off was set) with dueling statistics on how many people are effected by the switch, are aware of the looming transition, have used the Converter Box Coupon program the Government has in place to try and help, and so on and so forth.

We’re not sure how many people get over the air TV exclusively. But we know that a recent test in Wilmington, NC did not go over so well, and could be an indicator of the chaos next February will bring.

What about the Converter Box program? It has been plagued by problems, especially the lack of inclusion of “analog pass-through” mechanisms that would let digital boxers receive the analog signals from “Class A” T.V. stations, low power community stations that often serve minority communities and rural areas. Those stations are not required to switch, but with the wrong converter boxes, could lose much of their audience in one fell swoop.

The status of the program, along with the education campaign that has gone with it, can be summed up with this hilarious, but sadly accurate parody of the PSAs that have been airing more and more frequently thanks to an FCC requirement.

It’s October 19th as I write this. We’re just under five months out from the analog shutoff. And no one really knows what will happen after those transmitters go dark and a few million Americans turn on their TV’s to see…maybe nothing. Just snow. And even if they got a converter box, they might still have a problem.

See, unlike analog signals, which might come in fuzzy but still provide a picture, a DTV signal either gets received, or it doesn’t. There isn’t a trailing off of the signal, there’s just a cliff. And we don’t know for sure how well the digital signals will work or how many people will be affected by reception problems.

And remember those LPTV stations? They are just starting to get funding for their own transition, but they may well be out of business before they can get to it. And what about communicating emergency information and alerts? This is a vital function of broadcasters, whose licenses are conditioned on the requirement that they satisfy the “public interest” in exchange for free airwaves. All those little battery operated sets that people in hurricane and tornado prone regions keep around “just in case?” Worthless. And battery-operated digital sets are so expensive they’re almost impossible to find.

The government agencies in charge of this debacle, the FCC and NTIA, have had since 2005 to prepare for this. There have been many, many oversight hearings on both the House and Senate sides of the Capitol, where a littany of officials, including FCC chairman Kevin Martin and (Acting) NTIA boss Meredith Baker (who has been the third NTIA head since the transition date was set) have told skeptical lawmakers that all is and will be just fine.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, D-Fl., has repeatedly asked where her constituents should turn for emergency information post-cutoff. Her warnings have been ignored by much of the media outside the telecommunications world. But Senate Commerce Committee member David Vitter, R-La. has been strangely silent on the issue despite his state’s tragic experience with Katrina.

So how bad will it be?

We don’t have to find out.

Would you be surprised if I told you that there was a way to get a reprieve for consumers without delaying the transition which will give needed spectrum to public safety personnel as well as open up a whole new generation of wireless networks for consumers and business?

What if I told you that the solution is probably not far from where you are sitting.

It’s Cable TV.

Not the fancy HD Digital Cable with On Demand, but plain old analog cable that you can plug into your “cable-ready” T.V. or get with one of the millions of analog “black boxes” that are rotting away in warehouses.

Cable companies have wiring running past just about every house in America. It’s just that not everyone gets the service hooked up or turned on.

The industry has agreed to keep analog signals flowing down their pipes until 2012. What if the cable companies simply “lit up” a limited analog service (say, carrying the broadcast channels, LPTV signals and regular announcements on how to get DTV reception) and let people get hooked up and plug in for a limited amount of time, during which they would know that a) they need get the problem fixed before the temp service stops and b) give the government time to make sure the job is done right.

Two things would happen:

  1. We would greatly decrease the number of people that would lose access to their over-the-air stations while allowing for a better focused campaign to help the most vulnerable consumers (seniors, language minorities, etc) who may have been missed by the haphazard and last-minute campaign put on by the NAB and FCC.
  2. By measuring how many households hook up to the “transitional” cable, we could get a much better number on how many households got missed by the converter box program but receive OTA signals. We’d also know where they live, so they could get help converting during the time the transitional service is up.

This sounds like a good idea, right? Sort of a mulligan for the FCC and NTIA. And a way for the Cable industry to get some much needed good karma by offering a hand with what could be a very big problem.

But the industry has two roadblocks in the way. First, House Energy and Commerce chairman Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., has warned against the industry trying to use the switch for corporate gain. One does not want to incur the wrath of the longest-serving member of the House. And the FCC has also offered cautions to the industry. Nothing gets chairman Martin’s blood boiling like cable ever since they balked at his “a la carte” pricing proposal a few years back.

Second, if the NCTA coordinates any kind of unilateral effort by the industry to help, it could run into antitrust problems. Competitors to cable, including Satellite services, FIOS provider Verizon and maybe even broadcasters themselves might see an attempt to dig the country out of a hole as a power grab and sue. Litigation is not pretty, folks.

There are other, more wonkish concerns as well, This stopgap service could possibly pour gas on the smoldering tire fire of “must-carry” and “retransmission consent” disputes. But

But at this point in the game, letting cable offer a broadcast-only and time-limited service in order to put some more time on the clock might be the best way to turn what could be a major disaster for many into a quantifiable problem that could be fixed with a coordinated effort.

Or we can see what happens and pick up the pieces afterwards.

Just an idea, that’s all.