The DTV Transition – At What Cost?

[Author’s Note:  Thank you very much to David Irwin, Director of the Communications Law Institute at The Catholic University of America, for his review and suggestions for this article]

Click here to learn the detail of the DTV Transition from the official government web siteMuch has been made about the recent 700 MHz spectrum auction and the potentially billions of dollars raised for the U.S. Treasury, but this is just one part of a complex equation related to spectrum management and economics that may be implicitly costing U.S. citizens much more than they are receiving.

For example, there is the opportunity cost of the new, digital broadcast spectrum, given away to existing broadcasters by the government that is worth untold billions of dollars. Unfortunately, this article is probably about 10 years too late to affect a change, but maybe it will serve as a warning for future generations.

Prior to auctions, back in the early days of the FCC, spectrum was regarded almost like land during the homestead days of the eighteen hundreds.  That is, entities were given spectrum in exchange for building out the infrastructure, providing certain public goods and accepting regulations and restrictions.  Where more than one entity sought spectrum in a given locale, each spectrum application being mutually exclusive to the other, evidentiary-type hearings were held to determine which applicant would best serve the “public interest;” but, at the end of the hearing process a spectrum license was simply awarded by the government to the winner.

Much like homesteading, this policy lessened the risk for entrepreneurs and was a catalyst that expedited the build-out of the radio, television and original cellular infrastructures. These build-outs evidenced the inherent value of the spectrum and, as result, Congress turned to spectrum auctions as the prevalent way to ensure that the public received a return on its spectrum assets; that is, except for the give-away of digital television broadcast spectrum.

Giving away spectrum may have made sense in the 1990s when Congress and the FCC began laying the foundation for what what has become known as the 2009 digital television transition. In February 2009, all legacy television stations (with the exception of low-power stations) will turn off their analog transmitters and thereafter only broadcast digital signals; this may include high-definition TV.

The intent of Congress, heavily lobbied by the broadcast industry, was to free up the analog spectrum for other uses, as well as ensure that the U.S. remained competitive with other nations by having a digital broadcast infrastructure that supported HDTV. Like in the 1940s, the Federal Government essentially gave away spectrum to broadcasters in return for a digital build-out and exchange of bandwidth that had been used for analog signals. There have been significant and unanticipated changes since the DTV legislation was passed in the 90s, including:

  • The continued growth of cable, telco video distribution via fiber optics and copper DSL and DBS operators, such that the number of households receiving off-air broadcasts is estimated by Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC-Universal at 10%.  He suggested at NATPE 2008 that the number of households receiving off-air only will drop to approximately 5% after the transition.
  • The transition of the Internet into a video distribution medium is a true unknown — a “sleeper” in this equation.  Broadcasters and television networks are “re-inventing” themselves, embracing the internet, proving by their own actions and plans that broadband is a viable distribution outlet for video.
  • The success of unlicensed WiFi spectrum also indicates that spectrum does not have to be licensed in order to have value.  On the horizon is WiMax, which may be thought of as WiFi on steriods; WiMax is a potential threat to cable, satellite and telcos.  In all events, it appears that the concept of device-regulated spectrum (the devices are network-aware and transmit data accordingly, minimizing interference), instead of the traditional agency-licensed and regulated spectrum.
  • Improvements in video compression, which frees up bandwidth for uses that were probably never anticipated by Congress.
  • The success of auctions in allocating spectrum.

The transition to digital television broadcast required a huge investment by the broadcast industry and probably never would have been justified by better picture quality alone (although, the broadcast industry did make feature upgrades to include color and stereo in earlier days, but these didn’t involve such an extensive infrastructure upgrade).

That is, there is probably no new revenue for the broadcaster who only replaces a standard definition digital signal, albeit better than analog, with HDTV programming.   It is thus understandable why broadcasters are looking for ways to monetize their investments in digital technology including the use of the bandwidth not utilized for their primary digital and/or HDTV signal by:

  • Creating mini-cable systems by developing new content to go along with their primary channel
  • Potentially creating “pay versions” of popular programming (several years ago, one industry pundit suggested networks could create two versions of the same show; a tamer version for general broadcast and a wilder version that people would be willing to pay for as a premium service).
  • Leasing out bandwidth to third-parties that would essentially act as aggregators
  • Offering a mobile video solution that would extend their service offerings onto personal video devices.

Policy makers and broadcasters believe that these new applications of the broadcast bandwidth will have value to some consumers.  But, there are, as noted above, real costs, as well as opportunity costs that need to be considered.  Some of the real costs to the DTV transition include:

  • The $1.8 B in coupons provided by the Federal Government to consumers to pay for digital set-top coversion boxes that will let analog televisions play digital broadcast signals.
  • The costs that my telco friends and others had to spend as a result of an FCC mandate to publicize the digital TV transition.
  • The costs associated with cable systems and telcos having to support standard definition, long after the broadcasters make the switch to digital.
  • The big cost is probably the opportunity cost, as the digital spectrum given away would have value that could be realized explicitly through an auction process or as an unlicensed public good.  Based on the recent $19.6 B expected from the auction of the 700 MHz spectrum, the remaining 200+ MHz of spectrum could be well worth many multiples of the 700 MHz spectrum bids.

As much as I would like to be able to present a silver bullet that would change the situation, I doubt there is anything that could be done politically or practically to improve the value of the DTV transition for the U.S. taxpayer (it is our spectrum).  After making such a huge investment and with rules in place for so long, it simply isn’t fair to the broadcast industry to change the rules of the game at this late date.  Economists will suggest that there is nothing like political uncertainty to impede business investment and it would be bad precedent to make significant changes to DTV.  The time to make changes was 10 years ago.

It will be interesting to see how economic historians view the digital TV transition. Hopefully, they will learn from it and be able to influence politicians and regulators the next time we have the opportunity to make such a historic shift in our communications’ infrastructure.

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