Reality Bytes: Dear Mr. President

First, congratulations on your brilliant presidential campaign, convincing election results, and historic inauguration. I am impressed by your fresh thinking and your eloquent call for change. I was therefore surprised when your administration recommended that the switchover to digital TV be delayed beyond the February 17 deadline. That timidity seemed uncharacter- istic of you and your progressive message.

Subsequently, as you know, the Senate voted to delay the switchover until June 12 for 49 states. (Hawaii has already switched.) The House first voted against a delay and then, less than two weeks before the switchover, voted for a delay. In the midst of confusion, Congress has managed to make things even more confusing.

The DTV transition has been poorly legislated, and I predicted in the January issue of S&V that the switch- over wouldn't be pretty. The transition has included an aggressive public-awareness campaign. Anyone who hasn't seen these messages probably isn't watching much TV anyway. Nevertheless, in January, the Nielsen Company estimated that 5.7% of households weren't ready. But that figure was down 19% from a month earlier, suggesting that people were taking action. Moreover, the figure didn't include households that have a converter box but haven't installed it, or those that requested coupons but haven't received them. Whatever the numbers, it's my opinion that a delay is a bad idea.

Work on the ATSC DTV standard began in 1982. Four years ago, Congress auctioned the analog TV spectrum and mandated a switchover; the industry complied, and is now ready. The delay will be disruptive to important new technologies. Indeed, one of the major selling points for DTV was the creation of new services like an interoperable emergency network. The government has spent $1.34 billion for costs such as coupons (debit cards, actually) for purchasing converter boxes; your stimulus bill contains an additional $650 million. Whether people pay $50 for a box or $10 for a subsidized one, availability of boxes isn't a reason for a delay. The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that 12 million converter boxes are available for sale. Also, much has been said about the frail and elderly being vulnerable, but the latest figures show that households under 35 years old are more than twice as likely to be unprepared as those over 55.

The fact is that many people will be inconvenienced by the switchover, whenever it occurs. We could wait a decade, and everyone still wouldn't be ready. And to put this into perspective, we're not shutting off electricity or water. It's just TV. If we had switched over on February 17, it would be a nonissue by June 12. In your inaugural address, you said the way to move forward is for us to suck it up and make sacrifices. We should have started by moving the nation into its technological future, without additional delay. Some 94% of households were ready for change we can believe in. But we delayed.

In the end, my objection to the delay is based on my perception of how my government has been governing. Mr. President, in light of dead-wrong foreign-policy decisions, hundreds of billions of dollars for bailouts to failed banks (while Wall Street executives get billions in bonuses), tens of billions for automaker bailouts, and do-overs for toxic-mortgage holders, my question is: Why does government insist on rewarding people who make bad decisions?

And I'm not just talking about bailing out procrastinators by giving more time to those who made the bad decision not to be prepared. I'm talking about members of Congress who waited until the last minute to try to "fix" things. Congress has bungled this whole transition from the start. For example, it should never have allowed two coupons per household. If it had created a "safety net" of one box per household, we wouldn't have a $650 million shortfall. Now imposing a delay seems like an attempt at political expediency. When the switchover occurs and we inevitably read stories of people who can't watch TV, politicians can say they voted for a delay and thus did their best to avoid problems. We shouldn't have allowed Congress to reward itself with political cover for its own ineptitude. It should have taken responsibility for its bad decisions.

Senator John D. Rockefeller, the author of the delay bill, said, "The shameful truth is that we are not poised to do this transition right." Mr. President, the larger shameful truth is that Congress can't even do relatively simple things right. Above all, let's learn from this experience that the American people, starting with those elected to Congress, need to do a better job from now on.