Stalled Switch to Digital TV A Classic Tale of Breakdown

By Kim Hart and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 14, 2009

The nation's switch to all-digital broadcasts has been more than a decade in the making. The federal government has spent nearly $2 billion to help people prepare. Broadcasters spent another $1.2 billion to run warning ads and millions more to upgrade equipment. Until last week, the United States seemed ready to follow the half-dozen European countries that have made the switch.

But with two federal agencies in charge, no clear idea of how many people would be affected and constant partisan disagreements over money, the program foundered just before its long-standing Feb. 17 deadline. It has now been pushed back four months.

The result is confusion for the millions of Americans for whom the television is not simply another electronic device in the home but a crucial source of news and information. The idea that the government might deprive people of television reception strikes some as unjust and, in the event of emergencies, possibly dangerous.

Exactly how that happened is in many ways a classic Washington story.

The digital-transition bill was born amid sniping between Republicans and Democrats, which time and again complicated its implementation. The heads of the two federal agencies charged with managing the transition barely spoke to each other. And in the end, the rifts between Republicans in the Bush administration running the program and the congressional Democrats overseeing it stymied efforts to right the transition as it steered off course.

"There were so many moving pieces, and no one would step up and take ownership," said acting Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael J. Copps. "I don't think we really managed to get out of our digital cocoon until six months ago, and then it was too late to make this plan work."

Congress and the FCC, which had been discussing the transition as far back as 1996, were ready by 2005 to lay down the hard details of the program and schedule.

Both Republicans and Democrats acknowledged that the transition offered many benefits -- and one potentially massive hang-up.

People would get better reception. The government would make billions -- as it turned out, about $20 billion -- by auctioning off the old analog radio spectrum to cellphone companies.

The potential problem involved the roughly 21 million U.S. households that still received television over the air -- that is, without cable or satellite. Elderly, low-income and Hispanic viewers were most at risk of losing reception. If they had older TVs -- and most did -- they would need a converter box for their analog sets. Boxes cost $50 to $80.

Democrats, led by Rep. Edward J. Markey (Mass.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, argued in 2005 that because the government was making so much money on the deal, it should help pay for converter boxes. He outlined a program to give consumers two coupons for $60 each to buy the devices. The program would cost about $4 billion.

Republicans balked. To save taxpayer money, they argued, the program should be less generous. They wanted to limit the benefit to low-income households and hold the coupon amount to $40.

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