I Want My (Digital) MTV

Since The Spoons Experience has gotten to it yet, here’s a quick rebuttle to some of Bill Quick’s criticisms of the FCC decision mandating digital TV by 2007.

First of all, let me preface this by saying that this was the right decision made in the wrong way. I would have preferred to let the market decide when it was time to make the move to digital TV broadcasting. However, since the FCC has been charged with regulating the radio spectrum, this is something that makes sense technically, even if my free-marketeer side is loathe to go along with it.

The conventional analog TV system uses a huge chunk of the radio spectrum. (Here’s a chart of the US Frequence Allocation Table available as a PDF.) By comparison, digital TV would need only a fraction of that spectrum. There’s a considerable rush for new slices of spectrum for things like wireless networking, satellite radio, and other applications, and the whenever the FCC opens up a new chunk of radio spectrum for bidding, there’s usually a big rush for it. As wireless technology becomes more commonplace, the need for more spectrum will increase.

While a digital tuner costs $400 now, in five years, this price is likely to plummet.as manufacturers start making more of them. If the cost of plasma or LCD screens go down as well, digital TVs shouldn’t be that much more expensive than the conventional TVs. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that nearly every TV in America will be worthless in five years.

The question then becomes, is the increased spectrum worth the cost of consumers being forced in to replacing their TVs? That’s an open question. For a lot of people, as the prices for digital HDTV sets drop, the benefits of digital TV will probably make them switch. The picture and sound quality on an HDTV signal is considerably better than analog. If the price difference between a digital TV and an analog TV dropped to only 20% for a screen of a similar size, a lot of consumers would probably opt for the digital anyway.

I also firmly believe that the market will compensate for the change. Expect a market to pop up for cable boxes that feature digital tuners that can be slapped on to existing analog sets. The quality probably won’t be as good, but the first manufacturer to make an inexpensive external tuner will make a fortune. Already, many cable providers use such set-top boxes.

This is a changeover that has to be done sometime. Granted, it would be nice for the market to decide, but with the need for increased wireless spectrum, the FCC can’t really be blamed for wanting to get a move on things. The consumer will have to bear some increased costs, but five years is quite a lot of time for the prices to come down. Like all things digital, digital TV sets will probably drop in cost considerably in the next few years, to the point where the market for them will be pretty solid by the time the deadline rolls around. Yes, it’s government intervention into the market, and yes, my libertarian side cringes at it, but in the end there are more pressing issues to worry about, and there will be some benefits to the consumer in the end. Now, if only there were more shows worth watching in digital spendor…

UPDATE: The Spoons Experience has
its excellent response in support of the decision up now

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