Dover Bitch

Saturday, December 10, 2005

F: Deadlines

Note: This is Part III of a short series on the issue of the failure of our representatives in Washington to provide our first responders with the communications technology necessary to save lives. Part I | Part II | Part IV.

LEE HAMILTON: Absolutely. This is a no-brainer. From the standpoint of responding to a disaster, the key responders must be able to talk with one another. They could not do it on 9/11, and as a result of that, lives were lost. They could not do it at Katrina. They still cannot do it. And we think this is... must be urgently considered and approved. Now, that's not the only problem.

TIM RUSSERT: Will it get fixed this week?

MR. HAMILTON: I don't know.


MR. HAMILTON: It's a close call.

MR. KEAN: No, it's not...

MR. HAMILTON: We don't know.

MR. KEAN: It's not going to be fixed this week because the best hope we have is a bill that fixes it by '09.

-- Chair and vice chair of the September 11 Commission, Republican Tom Kean and Democrat Lee Hamilton, on Meet the Press, Dec. 4, 2005

Before our first responders have the communication tools they need to protect themselves and American citizens in times of crisis, they will need equipment and training. It will probably take years for emergency service agencies across the country to get this equipment and even longer to train officers to use it and finally implement its usage.

According to the McKinsey Report, issued in August 2002 on behalf of the NYFD, UHF (ultra-high frequency) radios purchased by the department in 1999 had yet to be put into use (although an unsuccessful attempt had been made). It is no small task to introduce completely new technology, improvement though it may be, to large organizations who are involved in a never-ending battle to save people from disasters and tragedies.

But before our public safety agencies can even begin to think about this multi-year process of implementing new technology, they need the frequencies upon which they will be transmitting their communications. Those frequencies are in the 700 MHz band of the broadcast spectrum and they are currently occupied by television stations.

Our government, if it comes through at all, will ask us to wait until 2009 for that process to begin. It could be years after that before a firefighter can talk to a police officer responding to the same emergency. This is a country that landed a man on the moon only eight years after President Kennedy challenged us to do it. Despite the worst terror attacks in our nation's history, it will take eight years before our first responders even have a chance to start solving their communications problems. As far as DB is concerned, this is outrageous.

What are the obstacles that have prevented this transition from taking place already?

  • There are thousands of television stations in America. Until recently, many were broadcasting exclusively in the 700 MHz band. Today, most stations broadcast both an analog signal and a digital signal in a different part of the spectrum. Converting a television station from analog to digital is an expensive proposition, costing millions of dollars and, for many small stations, more money than they make in years, maybe in over a decade. In addition to the station itself, the repeaters in the area that catch the broadcast, amplify it and send it back out to cover a wider range... all these repeaters need to be upgraded as well. For many of these stations, the end result of the upgrade will be that they spent millions of dollars just to be able to continue broadcasting the same shows with the same revenues from the same advertisers.

  • There are millions of televisions that cannot receive DTV broadcasts without additional hardware. Simply turning off the 700 MHz band broadcasts would mean that millions of households, mostly lower-income families, would lose access to those stations.

DB would like to point out here, before discussing why these obstacles have been essentially overcome already, that both are about money. Money that the broadcasters would have to spend. Money that television viewers would have to spend... theoretically. We're talking about money as we talk about why our first responders have been forced to wait.

Let's take a look at the first obstacle -- thousands of stations that need to be switched to DTV. As of today, Dec. 10, 2005, there are 1,525 stations in 211 markets that are on record as delivering broadcasts in DTV.

Although Motorola is one of the companies with the most to gain by the transition to DTV (IBM, Intel, Microsoft, AT&T and others will be big winners, too), their study, "700 MHz TV Clearing and its Impact on TV Viewership," says the following:

First, only 75 stations, equaling 5% of the 1500 U.S. TV stations, impact public safety's availability of its 700 MHz band spectrum. Second, Motorola's analysis of independent television industry data shows that on average, only 14% of the TV households who have the option to view these stations actually do so at all and that of those viewing, 82% watch by cable. This means that, on average, only 3% of the TV households within these stations' coverage areas tune to these stations over-the-air sometime during an average week. Therefore, the public interest benefits of clearing the 700 MHz spectrum for public safety access nationwide no later than December 31, 2006, far outweigh those of allowing it to stay encumbered by television.

That report was issued in February 2004. Those numbers have to be even lower today. In other words, the television stations will be ready to go all digital long before 2009. You could argue that they are ready right now.

Second -- the consumers and their outdated televisions. The Government Accountability Office recently estimated that there are 21 million households relying on outdated televisions. As noted by Motorola, there are relatively few viewers who will be impacted by the change. Just by virtue of a having a hard deadline, those consumers will be motivated to acquire a digital tuner, so the demand will be higher and manufacturers will have an incentive to develop better technology.

These numbers have no choice but to get even lower. The FCC is already requiring (since July 2005) that all 35-inch and higher TVs sold in America (and 50% of 25-inch-plus) have a built-in digital tuner and, since March 2006, that all 25- to 35-inch TVs. Starting March 1, 2007, the you will not be able to buy a new 13-inch TV without one. That's in three and a half months.

A Joint Economic Committee study, "The Transition to Digital Television: Setting a Hard Date Benefits Society," issued in October, adds that many of the older televisions might be used exclusively for DVD's or video games. It also makes the following point:

In previous decades, owners of Beta video players and 8-track tape players discovered that they could no longer purchase content for their machines because manufacturers of content had switched to alternative formats. Over the past decade, owners of phonograph record and cassette collections have found it difficult to purchase the equipment needed to listen to them. In none of these cases was there public pressure for either the industry or Congress to preserve the worth of past purchases.

Let's do the math. A digital tuner, manufactured in the numbers that would be required, will cost around $50 a unit. Even if every one of those 21 million estimated households needed to buy one, that would cost $1.05 billion. The real number is probably half of that.

The Senate has already passed legislation (S.1932 Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 2005), courtesy of Alaska "Bridge-to-Nowhere" Republican Ted Stevens, that would dole out $3 billion of taxpayer money so that everybody can get a DTV tuner. Think about that for a minute... $3 billion. The bill would take any of that $3 billion not spent and add it to the $1.25 billion devoted to first responders, but that whopping excess could have been aimed for that purpose to begin with. And the bill provides $200 million for the remaining low-power broadcast stations to get up to date with DTV. Let's face it, whether the money goes to the broadcasters or the companies making the tuners, Washington is making sure that we all take care of them.

So, as far as DB is concerned, there is absolutely no reason to say that we need to wait any longer to begin the transition.

So why do we need to wait until 2009? In the next installment, DB will discuss the auction.

Part IV is here.

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