Digital TV, bandwidth and the poor

As the IT person at a video/broadcast facility, I have to be knowledgeable not only about IT, but also about video and television;  I am an experienced video technician in my own right, a licensed Commercial Radio Operator and a "ham" (N1KGH), so I feel well qualified to discuss this topic.

Nolan Bowie, of the Harvard University School of Government had an op-ed in the Globe, Bridging the digital TV gap about the oncoming transition to digital TV.  In 2009, the existing analog TV broadcasts that we’ve known for over 50 years will be turned off, and in their place will be new digital transmitters.  Our current TV’s won’t receive the new digital broadcasts.

Professor Bowie has concerns: 

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. While approximately 85 percent of US households currently receive their television programming via cable TV or satellite TV services, the 15 percent of households that rely solely on over-the-air TV broadcasting will suffer disproportionately due to their poverty. They will likely be the same families who are now on the wrong side of existing digital divides.

He recommends:

Congress wants to help families by making coupons available that would cover the cost of one decoder per household. A better solution would be for Congress to provide subsidies in the form of means-tested "digital TV credits" to enable low-income families to purchase basic digital TV-video offerings from a multi-channel video service provider, whether that be a phone company or cable TV or satellite TV service.

The latest estimate of the proposed set-top DTV decoder subsidy, as quoted in an article from TV Technology , "NTIA issues D2A specs", is $1.5 billion.  This includes a first wave of $990 million where subsidies are available to everyone and a second wave of $550 million open only to households without cable or satellite.  The subsidy is a $40 discount coupon and each household can request 2.

Professor Bowie’s idea of cable and satellite subsidies for low income households is much more expansive and expensive.   Presently, in our area Comcast basic analog cable (local TV and public access channels only) runs $16 per month or $192 per year.  The least expensive satellite package from DirectTV is $39.95 per month or $480 per year.  For parity’s sake, Comcast’s lowest end digital package is also $39.95 per month as well.

According to J.D. Powers & Associates, 88 percent of U.S. households have cable or satellite or both, leaving 12 percent with just over-the-air TV.  According to the Census, there are 105 million households.   My calculations show 13 million homes without cable or satellite.  Assuming these homes would get either subsidized cable or satellite at $480 per year, that works out to $6.3 billion per year compared to the one-time $1.5 billion charge.   (Basic analog cable subsidies would be $2.5 billion/year.)  Means testing would reduce the subsidy but as I and Professor Bowie would suspect, this would not be by a lot.  (Why not partial subsidies, one wonders?  I’ll get to that point in a bit.)

There’s also the philosophical problem of subsidies.  Many people bitterly resent subsidized anything for the poor.  Stand behind someone paying with an EBT (electronic food stamp) card and listen for the snide comments from those who would gladly lecture others on their food buying habits.  How many times do you hear people complaining about "those people" in Section 8 housing?  Just imagine Congress saying:  "You’re asking for money to let welfare bums to watch cable/have a satellite dish?!"   (Many politicians enjoy pitting the poor and the middle class against each other.)

(I don’t feel this way personally;  I think TV represents a big part our culture and everyone should be able to partake of it for good or ill, but I’ve been on the "wrong" end of the economic scale recently enough to remember the hurtful comments.  I don’t know if Professor Bowie has had the same experiences.)

Bowie also believes the existing TV spectrum should be reallocated:

Congress could then make better and more efficient uses of the public airwaves by reallocating much of the television broadcasting spectrum for unlicensed broadband. This would help ensure universal access to high-speed broadband connectivity to the Internet and alternative forms of information, news, and entertainment.

Getting back to subsidies, if this is done there can be no consideration for giving partial subsidies for cable or satellite services;  to do so would disadvantage recipients since this would effectively end over-the-air broadcasting;  even with subsidies, they’d be worse off.

This would also end any chance of free, portable TV service which we have taken for granted each time someone takes a TV to the picnic or watches the game on their lap in the stadium.  Or for that matter, the small TV that’s used when the power goes out during a storm.  There’s a lot to be said for that capability and we throw it away at our peril.  There are already plans to enhance the digital TV transmission standard for portable reception, to fend off the phone carriers and their plans to bring TV to mobile phones.  If a hurricane happens and the lights go out, I don’t think I’ll be able to bring up TV on my cell phone, let alone afford it.

Bowie’s unlicensed broadband proposal doesn’t seem much more feasible.  Right now, the only existing wireless standard that’s even comparable is WiMax and that is outside the TV range, at 2-11 GHz.  While I’m charmed by the thought of getting out the rabbit ears to pick up Google, I don’t think this is a good use of the spectrum right now.  Megahertz is not pixie dust;  the broadcasters turned over 700 MHz for public safety as part of the digital transition, but this wouldn’t have done anything during Katrina when radios from different agencies couldn’t interoperate with each other.  Extra megahertz won’t fix that and it won’t make a broadband data service appear out of thin air.  Broadband carriers besides DSL or cable, such as power line or wireless, haven’t been very successful thus far and won’t ever be if their service is perceived to be "for the poor."

I do agree with Bowie on just one point:  TV disposal after 2009 will likely be a nightmare.  In Massachusetts, we can’t dispose of TV’s and CRT’s without paying for a hazardous disposal sticker, at $20 per item.  Illegal dumping already goes on, and many municipalities, including Salem, don’t have the funds for the annual hazardous-waste disposal days held around the Commonwealth.

In the end, the best way forward is probably what we’re doing now.  Set-top boxes can keep the old sets going for a little while longer past the transition.  At a little less than two years to the transition, with many broadcasters already converted to digital or actively doing so, it’s virtually too late now to do anything else.

Take care.


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