Hazlett on Pursuit of Digital Standard: A Game-Changing Moment

Despite government angst over the recent elimination of analog television in the U.S., Professor Thomas Hazlett points out that "Americans long ago elected to ante up $50 a month or more to escape 'free TV'. More than ninety percent of the television viewing audience made their transition to digital cable and digital satellite, without public policy fuss or muss, in the 1990s."

Hazlett, a former Chief Economist for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), advocated nearly twenty years ago for a switch to High Definition TV and successfully convinced the FCC in 1990 to begin pursuing a digital standard, something Hazlett calls "a game-changing moment."

In the late 1980s, TV station lobbyists mounted a campaign to block release of unused TV band spectrum to valuable new services. Hazlett says the release would have enhanced cellular phone competition and public safety radio systems, instead of wasting valuable bandwidth for the more than two decades since.

Analog Television Dies With a Whimper, Real Clear Markets, June 30, 2009. by Thomas Hazlett.

"Gluing viewers to off-air TV and keeping massive bandwidth tied up in an obsolete technology robs Americans of countless wireless opportunities. Instead of moving broadcasts to broadband, cable and satellite to make room for innovative new services, we paid viewers to keep tuning in the same channels where I Love Lucy debuted in 1951.

"TV airwaves would fetch $120 billion at the prices paid for wireless licenses in March 2008. The value of that bandwidth to consumers by is at least an order of magnitude higher. We will tap virtually none of this value through an FCC plan, launched Dec. 2002, designed to allow government-approved radios not yet invented to quietly use some TV band frequencies - so long as they don't come close to interfering with Aunt Minnie's Wheel of Fortune reception. These airwave scraps are needlessly sliced, diced, and pared: Aunt Minnie is watching cable.

"Alternatively, a wireless cornucopia would be unleashed by an idea put forward by former Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) in 1996. (He was promptly targeted by broadcasters and defeated for re-election - a good endorsement, as these things go.) The Pressler plan would leave digital TV broadcasts in place, but give new licensees the right to buy the broadcasters out. This would pave the way for new services with wide stretches of virgin spectrum. This bandwidth mother lode would entice hot new mobile broadband applications. Concerned about the U.S. falling behind in Internet infrastructure? Circle this policy on your program guide."

Read the article