Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Paranoia at Work: DTV Switchover Delay

The government has been handing out coupons for people to convert their analog televisions to digital for months, but the numbers suggest alternatively either that no one knows or has noticed what is coming, or that far more are requesting coupons than previously expected.

Cringely warned us about "The Coming DTV Nightmare" back in early January. Apparently the Senate listened and passed a bill to delay the switchover another four months.

Ordinarily I take Cringely's word as gospel. But on this one, his commenters show us the light:

Bob, do you really think the same 2 million lazy people who ignored all the DTV annoucements for a decade are going to rise up and write their congressman? I think not. This will be a non-event much like Y2K.

The delay might be a mix of consumer laziness, consumers attempting to "wait and see" what DTV is like after the switchover, or groups of consumers who know that DTV won't be any good for them, and so have opted out. It's implausible to me that it's from ignorance, since the advertising has been dense. I avoid television commercials as much as possible, but I've seen the ads. (Anyone who hasn't seen the ads probably doesn't watch television, and doesn't really need to know.) None of these groups are going to riot after the switch, and none of them are going to change their behavior if the switch is delayed.

Another commenter on Cringely's post points to the real worry, that the switchover itself will segregate access to television. Responding to the fact that DTV antennas get terrible reception indoors, and that a lot of people in this country live in apartments...
Bottom line — you can watch analog TV in [the city] — it sucks, you get ghosting but it is watchable. You can not watch digital TV unless you own your own building in which case you already have cable anyway.

On the other hand, we're at the beginning of a new class of devices exploiting the 700 MHz spectrum. Everyone knows these pipes are more useful on 21st century devices, delaying the switchover screws the players in those auctions and diminishes the prices the government will get in the next round of auctions. Mostly it delays the key innovations that we will actually care about in a few years. Cringely is generally smart, and knows TV is on death's door, so why is he so scared of government give it a kick out the door?

Nonevent, or unavoidable class warfare. Either way, Cringely's wrong, and the delay is idiotic. My prediction: in four months Congress abandons the switchover, and the government has to pay billions of dollars in damages to companies that won the auction.