Dave Sez: “It's raining, and I can't watch Charlie Brown in HD.”

Some of you may remember my friend “Dave” who tried to get the $10 DSL deal from AT&T in ’07 when he moved to Sacremento. As I noted at the time, Dave does not get cable TV “on the grounds that 99% of the programming ‘sucks.’” Being a smart and technologically savvy fellow, as well as keeping up on all things media and telecom by reading this blog, Dave went and got his NTIA coupon and bought a converter box and did everything like a technologically savvy consumer should.

Did this bring Dave the wonders of digital television? Sadly, no. But let him tell you in his own words below . . . .

From: “Dave”
To: Interim Chairman Michael Copps, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, and Commissioner Robert McDowell
Re: It’s raining, and I can’t watch Charlie Brown in HD

Dear Commissioners,

I am one of those people who is not interested in cable/satellite/pay TV. All I want is broadcast television, and I feel, as an American citizen, entitled to it. As we are all well aware, the airwaves are public property, and broadcasters are licensed to use them to broadcast television to us, free of charge. So why do my airwaves no longer work?

With the coming of the digital transition, I recently invested in two new digital-ready LCD TVs. Immediately I found that my rabbit ear antennas no longer worked adequately, only pulling in signals sporadically and after much adjustment. So I went and bought two special (and expensive) antennas for pulling in digital signals. Surprise: they work better, but my digital reception is still inferior to the old analog!

The television in my living room pulls in decent signals, but only when it’s not raining. The television in my bedroom only receives sketchy signals, even in good weather.

I am both disappointed and angered that the FCC allowed industry to set its own broadcast technical standards, without regard for broadcast viewers and seemingly without meaningful government oversight. Whether or not this was a deliberate attempt to kill broadcast television, it does look like the inevitable outcome.

I understand that there is now a bill before Congress for cable companies to provide minimal basic service for $10/mo., to address this problem. This would still cost me and those like me $120/yr. to receive what used to be free.

Your vaunted digital transition would appear then, for all intents and purposes, to be a giveaway to the pay TV people, directly from my pockets to their coffers.

After so much time and effort was spent planning this digital transition, how could the FCC have dropped the ball so badly with respect to broadcast technical standards? What are you planning to do to redress this situation? Anything at all, or am I just out of luck? Did my government simply abandon me, because antenna people don’t really count in this brave new digital world?

I feel completely sold out.

“Dave”

Nor is Dave alone. Another acquaintance of mine, a woman named “Abby” writes here of her experience as an eager early adopter suffering through a wretched and clumsy transition — including clueless “help” centers and signal problems due to proximity to a local airport. And while these two have stubbornly refused to go the pay TV route, I know a few frustrated folks who just gave up. My younger brother, for example, who also got his NTIA coupons well in advance and got two set top boxes (one for each TV), discovered that his signal would regularly break up. My suspicion is that this is because he is next to a metro line/commuter rail, and that the RF from the line causes enough interference at random times to break up the signal — which in his old analog days would have been just a random static wave. (Mind, I could be wrong on this part.) Anyway, after weeks of trying to make his digital set-top box work for him, he finally succumbed to the door-to-door FIOS salesman that Verizon sent out to our neighborhood. (I did not so much succumb as make a running tackle, as I have been waiting for FIOS to deploy in my neighborhood for some time — but the tale of my switch from the brave little CLEC Cavtel back to the waiting arms of Verizon because fiber-to-the-home is SO TOTALLY WORTH IT nust wait for another time.)

Anyway, to get back to the main point, we have a lot of people getting shafted in this transition. Despite the sneers of the technorati elite (including, I must confess, yr hmbl obdn’t blogger), it’s not just clueless folks who somehow managed to live in a cave and miss all the announcements about the upcoming conversion or who put things off to the last minute. A lot of people did exactly what they were supposed to do — got the coupons, bought the boxes, followed the instructions — and are still getting the short end of the rabbit ears because of problems with physics or because Congress in 2005 decided to try to do this on the cheap and without appointing someone to have overall responsibility for handling the transition.

Also, as Dave correctly notes, his problem comes from the DTV standard, which the FCC allowed industry to dictate and adopt on its own. Mind you, as part of the great injustice of the universe and overall farce which is “the digital television transition,” none of the sitting Commissioners had anything whatsoever to do with these decisions — having arrived at the Commission after the tech standards got settled. Nor can they do anything about the tech standards now. About the only thing the FCC can do is play around with technologies like Distributed Transmission System (DTS), which perversely reward the broadcasters by giving them more spectrum (potentially at the expense of unlicensed use in the broadcast white spaces).

Indeed, in the ultimate injustice, Commissioner Copps (and Adelstein) repeatedly sounded the alarm on the DTV train wreck early and often. As a reward, Chairman Copps now finds himself the subject of the anger of Dave and Abby and everyone else he tried to help because he is stuck holding the bag here at the end of over ten years of “trusting the private sector” and “leaving it to industry” rather than have the big bad federal government do anything but kibbitz from the sideline and hope for the best. Mind you, I do think Copps could stand to be a bit more vigorous in persuing allegations that cable operators have tried to leverage the overall confusion by swindling viewers into switching to digital packages. But even leaving that aside, the real damage in letting the industry set its own standard without any regard for consumer welfare was done long before Copps was even on the Commission, let alone made Chairman.

As Adam Smith pointed out long ago:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.
Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 10

This logic applies in full force to the question of industry standard setting. While it is certainly necessary to involve members of industry in the setting of critical standards, it does not serve the public interest to allow industry to go off into a secluded corner and come back with a standard of their own devising. When we study the lessons of the DTV train wreck, and how to avoid such disasters in the future, I hope folks will think of Dave and Abby and how they got stuck with a lousy DTV standard. Leaving industry standards exclusively to the “Invisible Hand” of the private sector may seem a fine idea to those who worship the Gods of the Marketplace, but all to often it is the public that gets The Finger.

Stay tuned . . . .

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6 Comments

  1. JohnMc says:

    “entitled to it. As we are all well aware, the airwaves are public property, and broadcasters are licensed to use them to broadcast television to us, free of charge.”

    Yes indeed the airwaves are public property there Dave. But the transmitter, the studio, the producer, the show content, the advertising, on and on are not. Live with it.

    The irony of the whole thing of DTV is, if truly this was a sham effort is that the industry that fostered the sham will be the one eaten by the sham. Over the air broadcasters depend on advertising for revenue. The advertisers WILL come to recognize that their message is not getting out to the same number of viewers as is expected they will either demand reduction in the payment schedule or reduce their overall participation. The broadcasters then have no one to blame but themselves.

    I don’t hold to conspiracy theories (too hard to maintain beyond a small group) but would subscribe to a theory of the cheap suit. If it is the latter then that is not a matter of policy or technology but that the suits did it on the cheap. We have been covering the DTV disaster off and on for 3 years now. There has been enough stupidity to go around. eg. FCC sponsoring a NASCAR race car for example.

    Best advise for Dave? TV is a vast wasteland. Crochet is much more relaxing.

  2. Just wait till HD Radio comes along. Fortunately, there’s no imposed sunset on that dog, so the marketplace may very well kill it on its own (I hope so).

  3. Rich B says:

    Everybody is so excited about the end of analog TV. They’re talking about getting cut off from TV like people were getting cut off from oxygen.

    Yeah, whenever the FINAL deadline arrives (thank you Ever So None, Congress) some folks will be surprised when the old Zenith doesn’t work one morning. But MORE people will have decided to opt out on over-the-air TV.

  4. Observer says:

    Calling this a conspiracy by the broadcast industry may be mistaken. The broadcasters got to spend perhaps a billion or two for new equipment and for running two stations in parallel for a few years. At the end of the transition they get about the same coverage as before.

    In contrast, the broadcast equipment and TV set manufacturers have benefited. So, if there is a conspiracy its the manufacturers against the broadcasters and the public.

  5. Henry Cohen says:

    “Also, as Dave correctly notes, his problem comes from the DTV standard, which the FCC allowed industry to dictate and adopt on its own.”
    The problem does not come solely from the selected DTV standard or the broadcasters dictating the standard; it comes mostly from the fact that terrestrial wideband digital RF signal propagation will never be on par with analog, all else being equal.

  6. Jon Baker says:

    Not exactly on topic, but close – while leaving the design of regulation entirely in the hands of the industry that will be regulated, can have unanticipated negative effects on the consumer, I wonder who composed the new Consumer Product Safety rules that have outlawed any children’s book printed before 1985?

    http://www.city-journal.org

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