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Jeff Blevins, an assistant professor in ISU's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, has studied the country's digital broadcast conversion for a class he's been teaching since 2004. Photo by Bob Elbert, ISU News Service Download print-quality photo.
Jeff Blevins, Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, (515) 294-3488, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Greenlee School professor sees consumer drawbacks to digital TV conversion
AMES, Iowa -- As the country prepares for the mandated digital broadcast conversion of television airwaves on Feb. 17, an Iowa State University communications professor questions its benefit to consumers and the government's involvement in the conversion process.
Jeff Blevins, an assistant professor in ISU's Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, says the public interest was equated with the development of digital television through Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Since 2004, Blevins has taught an "Electronic Media Technology and Public Policy" course, which provides a semester-long case study of the Act.
"Ironically, one of the titles that is most vexing for the class is 'Title II: Broadcast Services,' which gave us digital television," Blevins said. "If you look at the totality of the law, it's a deregulatory bill. It's getting government out of communication regulations -- relaxing media ownership rules and extending the period of broadcast licenses. You're having the government do less, except here (Title II) where they're trying to encourage digital television."
He's concluded that through Title II, Congress wanted to reward broadcasters for transitioning to digital service by adding more spectrum allocation to their existing license, as long as it is used for digital broadcast. But Blevins contends that the law ignored the demand side, or the benefit to consumers.
"Instead of letting the market decide, Congress said, 'Well, we're going to have to mandate a switch,'" he said. "And that does make some sense. You want all your broadcasters to use the same standard so there is some consistency. But why not wait until there's some consumer demand for that? This was going to be very expensive, requiring a massive reinvestment in hardware for broadcasters."
While the government offset the cost of digital transition for broadcasters by increasing the size of their allotted spectrum and loosening the restrictions on media ownership, Blevins reports that the law did little to offset the costs for consumers.
"Now, consumers' analog television receivers are rendered obsolete, and digital sets are still quite expensive," he said. "I used to joke in class before 2008 that I could hardly imagine a government subsidy for each citizen to have a digital television; but in essence that is what has taken place with the $40 vouchers for the converter boxes."
The government budgeted enough for 4.3 million people to apply for the vouchers, but nearly twice as many -- 7.2 million -- have applied. Unfunded applicants are now on a waiting list until further funds become available.
"The expectation was that many consumers would go out and buy new televisions -- upgrading to flat screen HDTVs. The economic slump has dampened that expectation," Blevins said. "The budget set by the Bush Administration ($1.5 billion) to cover the cost of the converter box coupons has run out."
He also sees these consumer concerns about the transition to digital-only broadcasting:
Blevins agrees that digital broadcasting does result in an improved product. And he admits that if it weren't for the government mandate, the digital conversion may not have taken place in a timely manner because of the expense to broadcasters.
But he still questions whether it's the government's business to be involved.
"I think it's questionable at least," Blevins said. "If they are going to be involved, a more holistic approach would have been better. But this is not uncommon in the FCC -- and you could probably argue in other administrative agencies as well -- where they are, in some respect, captured by the very industries they are supposed to regulate."
ISU communications professor Jeff Blevins questions the benefit to consumers of the mandated digital television conversion on Feb. 17, and the government's involvement in the process. Since 2004, Blevins has taught a course that's provided a semester-long case study of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which produced the digital conversion.
"If you look at the totality of the law, it's a deregulatory bill. It's getting government out of communication regulations -- relaxing media ownership rules and extending the period of broadcast licenses. You're having the government do less, except here (Title II) where they're trying to encourage digital television."