The Great DTV Heist

In 1963 a group of 20 people robbed a mail train in Buckinghamshire, England. They got away with the inflation-adjusted equivalent of approximately $70 million though 13 of them were eventually brought to justice.

An even bigger heist now in progress makes the Great Train Robbery pale by comparison. And guess who?s being robbed? You are!

A group of corporate squatters are sitting on something you own – the public airwaves – and may be doing so long after they promised to give a large portion of that spectrum back to the government – your government. In doing so they are looting the U.S. Treasury of hundred of billions of dollars.

OK, this will take some explaining.

From the advent of broadcasting the federal government has asserted public ownership of the airwaves. The airwaves are said to be regulated in the public interest. TV and radio broadcasters are licensed to use the airwaves.

This system operated for many decades until the 1980s when an industry-led government panel decided, quite properly, that a further portion of the public airwaves should be made available for high-definition television broadcasting. The public benefit would be a sharper picture and digital surround sound.

That second portion of spectrum has been duly allocated and now TV broadcasters in most major markets operate on two different parts of the public airwaves, delivering analog TV on one and digital TV (sometimes including HDTV) on the other. Good for them and good for us.

As part of the deal struck back in 1996, the broadcasters agreed that, after a 10-year transitional period, they would cease analog broadcasting and cede that part of the spectrum back to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which would then allocate it for other purposes. Viewers still using analog TVs would be able to continue using them with a set-top adapter.

The shutoff of analog broadcasting isn?t at all unreasonable. After all, 85 percent of the American public already uses a set-top box – either satellite or cable – and the cost of outfitting the other 15 percent who depend solely on the airwaves would be relatively modest. If you?re buying an HDTV, you can even eliminate the box entirely by getting a model with an integrated tuner, CableCARD slot, or satellite capability.

Better yet, HDTV street prices have fallen below the $700 mark (for the 27-inch Samsung TXN2670WHF), so eventually just about everyone will own one. A rear-projection CRT-based HDTV with a 40- to 46-inch screen goes for as little as $1000 on the street. They?re practically giving them away! The displays commanding higher prices are the sexy flat-panel LCD and plasma panels.

NTSC, the analog television standard, originated in 1948. It was updated for color in the early 1950s and retrofitted with stereo in the ?80s. Folks, it?s time to say goodbye.

The date given for the final switch to digital television was to be 2006, giving broadcasters 10 long years to comply. And guess what? Not all of them have. Though 1186 TV stations broadcast in digital (as well as analog), about 400 stations still broadcast only in analog.

Prodded?one might even say dominated?by the broadcasters and their deep-pocketed owners, the FCC has extended the deadline from December 31, 2006 to December 31, 2009. The DTV ?transition,? as it is officially called, seems to be going on forever. As a result these corporate squatters will continue to use spectrum for both their digital and analog signals.

This is not a victimless crime. The part of the spectrum now used for analog TV broadcasting was to have been turned over to the federal government which had planned to auction it off to the highest bidder starting in 2007. Revenue from this auction had already been factored into future federal budgets.

But that money won?t be coming in as previously scheduled. So taxpayers are the ultimate victims. We pay through having to support a higher budget deficit, which means Washington has to borrow more, which in turn means that interest payments will have to be factored into future federal budgets. The interest on hundreds of billions of dollars is not chump change, though we are, in fact, being treated like chumps.

Wait, it gets better. What are the broadcasters doing in the face of this sudden burst of public largesse? After all, the continued use of public property worth hundreds of billions of dollars is quite a boon, isn?t it? So they should be pretty grateful to you, the taxpayer, right? Well, not exactly.

They?re complaining. They don?t want to give the analog spectrum back in ?06 or ?09 or any other time. And to justify a point of view that?s fundamentally indefensible, they?re inventing excuses.

One thing they?re objecting to is a potential change in the FCC?s criteria for declaring the transition to digital broadcasting complete. Originally the FCC was supposed to end analog broadcasting either in 2006, or when 85 percent of the viewing public had access to digital signals, whichever happened first. More recently FCC chairman Michael Powell has partly redeemed his spinelessness by suggesting that cable and satellite viewers receiving DTV should be factored into that calculation. By that standard, the transition is already complete, since most cable and satellite systems already deliver DTV, including a fair amount of HDTV.

Powell?s latest proposal would also allow cable companies to down-convert high-definition channels to analog. In that scenario, as the broadcasters rightly point out, a public hungry for better pictures and sound would get more of the same-old, same-old.

Given the fact that an HDTV channel takes up the same six megahertz as an analog TV channel, allowing down-conversion wouldn?t really save any bandwidth in cable systems. But it would prevent people who have bought HDTVs from getting a high-def signal for those channels. That would be a disaster. My take on this is that Powell is just floating the idea to light a fire under the minority of broadcasters who still haven?t made the transition to digital.

Broadcasters have another reason for objecting to cable companies delivering their signals in analog form: multicasting. They want the opportunity to split their digital channels into multiple lower-quality channels to increase ad revenues.

Of course, that isn?t HDTV, and the cable operators see no reason why they should give broadcasters the opportunity to smuggle extra channels into cable systems. Cable systems aren?t limitless; they have a certain bandwidth and can?t exceed it without rebuilding. Requiring cable companies to allocate precious bandwidth to HDTV channels is reasonable. Multicasting is not.

Another problem hindering the transition to digital TV broadcasting is an antiquated federal law that prohibits satellite operators from delivering HDTV feeds from the major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) ?out of market??in other words, outside of the affiliate station?s local area. But Congress can fix this problem easily and quickly. It?s not a technology problem; it?s just a matter of patching a hole in an old piece of legislation, so that people who aren?t reached by broadcast or cable TV can get HDTV channels via satellite.

One by one the barriers to a high-definition future have fallen. The latest piece of good news is that much of the fall schedule from Fox Sports will be in HDTV. Rupert Murdoch has always been an HDTV skeptic. For a long time he asserted that standard definition was all the definition anyone needed. Even when Fox transmitted the Super Bowl in widescreen, it did so in standard-definition widescreen. But now Fox is acquiring the trucks, cameras, and other gear needed to do sporting events in HDTV. Now, if we could just get NBC to go beyond Leno and give us Saturday Night Live?

But there?s plenty of HDTV programming already and more will come. It?s really the transmission chain that?s the last frontier. Broadcasters who have not upgraded their transmitters must do so if they want to continue using the public airwaves. Cable operators must be required to carry all HDTV channels available in a local area?without down-conversion. And the satellite operators must be unshackled so that they can deliver a full complement of HDTV channels to their subscribers.

I?m an optimist. I think it?ll happen! I just don?t want to wait until I?m 80 years old before I see it.

What about you? Do you get HDTV? If so, by broadcast, satellite, or cable? What are your HDTV-related joys and frustrations? Tell us what you think in our community forum.

Finally, a word to HDTV fanatics: when you?re done expressing your opinions here, print them out and mail them to your Congressman, Senators, and the campaign headquarters of whichever party in which you?re registered. Yes, HDTV is a political issue, and this is a presidential election year. Digital television may not be not as important as national security or health care, but the spectrum heist will have a direct impact on the federal budget. You can be sure that the broadcasters are throwing their weight around in Washington?you should do the same.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater (

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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