July 17, 2007
The Digital Deadline, Inefficient Preparation, and a New Digital Divide?

Not that long ago, I ran into Prof. Nolan Bowie, who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University down the road. I took a class with him on public policy issues surrounding new media last year, and I was intrigued to know that he would be writing a series of commentaries for The Boston Globe since, if nothing else, Nolan is always provocative.

What caught my eye when looking back over the articles I missed was his piece from last month on Bridging the TV Gap.

Those of you who follow the C3 blog fairly regularly may know that I've been quite concerned with the upcoming digital deadline, although also aware that the deadline could very well be moved again before all is said and done. The plan for analog television signals to be a think of the past by February 2009 is quite understandable when one understands the potential benefits for freeing the spectrum for more efficient uses, but the way in which the public has been informed, and plans have been made for such a digital deadline, has been...well...something less than efficient.

Nolan writes about the great benefits of the digital conversion but also about the dangers for low-income families, the need to follow this up with an emphasis on better and universally available high-speed broadband Internet connection, and concerns about what will happen with ownership rules with the proliferation of channels allowed by a completely digital media environment, as well as the substantial concern about the disposal of analog televisions. He warns, "Many poor and low income working poor families may not be able to afford new digital TV sets or suitable substitutes, thus creating a new kind of digital divide in addition to the expanding gaps associated with Internet access."

I first wrote about digital deadline issues back last October, when a study found that only a third of those surveyed knew about the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline. A similar study found the same back in January, as I wrote about here. Then, I wrote:

My own anecdotal evidence has found much of the same. Aside from the people I know professionally interested in these issues, friends and family members are completely oblivious to the 2009 digital requirement. I was at home over Christmas and talking to several people about their television purchases or their interest in digital TV sets, and none seemed aware of the primary reason why they might want to buy a digital set by 2009 if they haven't already. One friend, whose family has plenty of capital, have five or six televisions in their house, but none of them prepared for the digital changeover.

I think that there needs to be a massive drive to get the word out throughout the next calendar year, especially since so many people are interested in purchasing flat panel televisions. A primary motivator like this could help drive sales to follow up on the holiday increase in HDTV interest.

In March, U.S. Rep. John Dingell criticized both industry and government for this lack of public awareness. As I wrote then:

Blame from Dingell was directed throughout government bureaucracy, toward the Bush Administration, and toward the industry, meaning everyone but the viewers themselves were to blame, an account I can hardly disagree with. [ . . . ] His criticism in particular of the way in which the Bush Administration (but I would widen this to government in general and the industry as well) was giving so little time and effort to thinking about the massive implication this switch could have in many Americans' lives was particularly apt.

The series started with a steadfast argument against single statewide franchising licenses for cable operators, based on Verizon's bid to move to a centralized statewide process. Bowie argues for the importance of local control and negotiations for cable services, with an emphasis on local sensibilities and locally produced content.

He has also written about antiquated interpretations for the need for broadcast regulation, pointing out that "public policy and communication law simply have not kept up with rapidly changing and evolving technology," as well as education, privacy, and the concept of an ownership society.