VIEWPOINT: All Aboard Kennard's DTV Train Wreck


Washington -- It seems as if the only people in American who are unprepared for the Feb. 17 transition to digital television are advisers to President-elect Obama.

Some of the second-guessing going on just weeks before the big event seems to be grounded more in fear than fact. And some seem to be saying things today that are totally at odds with what they once espoused while holding high public office.

Take, for instance, former Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard, who ran the agency during President Clinton's second term.

Kennard, an Obama fundraiser and adviser, is extremely nervous about the national cutoff of analog TV signals. But Kennard's solicitude for the digitally disenfranchised wasn't something always foremost in his thinking.

Writing in the Jan. 9 edition of The New York Times with his successor Michael Powell (a former McCain adviser who is now an Obama adviser), Kennard said the Feb. 17 transition should be delayed, calling it a "fiasco" and a "train wreck."

On his last day in office -- Jan. 19, 2001 -- Kennard sent a letter to Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ernest (Fritz) Hollings (D-S.C.) with his policy prescriptions for hastening the DTV transition -- without, of course, producing a fiasco.

First, Kennard said all analog stations in channels 52-69 -- the 700 MHz band -- should be forced to shut down on Dec. 31, 2006. He said this should happen regardless of how many consumers had DTV sets.

"The firm deadline would be limited to channels 52-69 because this is where substantial, contiguous blocks of spectrum can become available for new services and technologies such as Third Generation or 3G mobile data offerings," Kennard said.

Kennard didn't mention how the loss of channels 52-69 would sit with consumers stuck with old analog sets and who, at that time, had no access to $1.34 billion in federal funds to buy digital-to-analog converter boxes.

When Kennard was in power, federal law required analog TV stations to transition on Dec. 31, 2006 if at least 85% of households in their markets had digital reception capability.

In his Hollings letter, Kennard said the 85% test should be eliminated because in his view failing to do would, as he called in it in an October 2000 speech, perpetuate "the spectrum squatter" problem.

Kennard predicted it would take until 2025, based on the rollout of color TVs, for DTV set penetration to hit 85%. Unacceptable, he said.

Today, 93% of American TV households are DTV-ready, according to Nielsen. But Kennard says that's just too low to justify going forward on Feb. 17. But eight years ago, Kennard was saying that maintenance of an 85% DTV readiness standard was too high. With regard to channels 52-69, even a puny 1% DTV penetration was too high for Kennard.

The real DTV train wreck seems to be the collision between Kennard's views in 2001 and his views in 2009.