NEW YORK - The U.S. has planned for more than a decade to have TV broadcasters turn off their analog signals, yet when the Feb. 17 deadline loomed, it flinched, delaying the mandatory shutdown for four months.
The delay, which causes confusion for TV viewers and havoc for broadcasters, is a symptom of the unique way the U.S. conceived the shutdown: No other big country has dared to, or plans to, end its analog TV broadcasts all in one go.
All developed countries are looking at turning off their analog TV signals because of the obvious benefits. Going digital improves the quality of TV reception and frees up large swaths of the airwaves for other services like wireless data.
But other countries are being more cautious about moving into the digital age. Austria, which is the size of South Carolina, turned off its analog signals over seven months in 2007, moving area by area from west to east. Germany, slightly smaller than Montana, shut down area by area over five years.
To find countries that turned off their signals all in one go, as the U.S. essentially was about to do Feb. 17, you'd have to go to countries like the Netherlands, about the size of Maryland, and Luxembourg, which is smaller than Rhode Island. Those countries aren't just small — they also have very few households that watch over-the-air TV broadcasts. Olivier Pascal at research firm Analysys Mason estimates that only 30,000 Dutch homes were affected by the analog shutdown. The rest have cable or satellite dishes.
According to research firm MRI, 17.7 percent of Americans live in households with only over-the-air TV.
Turning off area by area lets a country focus manpower and money on the region that is next to make the jump. In Britain, where a five-year transition is slated to end in 2012, technicians will come to your home if you are disabled or over 75 and help you set up for digital reception, including installing a new antenna.
"We didn't have big problems," said Industry Ministry spokesman Pino Caiola. "Otherwise there would have been a revolution."
Three years in advance, Spain picked a small province as a digital-only testing ground. Analog signals were turned off there in July, with groundwork that included the distribution of free digital converter boxes by the Red Cross.
The U.S. "all together now" transition plan was set by Congress in 2005. It was only in May last year that the FCC decided to have limited tests ahead of the national switch-over.
"Our single transition date does not afford us the luxury of a built-in learning curve. We have one chance to get this right — one opening night," FCC Commissioner Michael Copps wrote in arguing for a test run.
The FCC chose Wilmington, N.C., as a pilot area for the switch-off. Despite an intensive public education campaign before analog signals died Sept. 8, there were many calls to help lines, mostly because people were unable to tune one or more digital channels.
In Hawaii, analog signals were shut down in January, but that was so analog towers could come down before an endangered bird's nesting season, and not designed as a learning exercise.
The one main national transition date also made it hard to estimate how many people would request $40 subsidy coupons for digital converter boxes. The government fund ran out of money in early January, prompting calls for a delay of the transition to give Congress time to allocate additional funds. The Democratic economic stimulus plan would add $650 million to get the coupons flowing again. There's a wait list of 3.7 million requests for coupons.
The bill that called for the delay leaves stations the option of keeping the Feb. 17 date for the shutdown, and many, though not all, will do so. Now, in essence the U.S. will have two shutdown dates: Feb. 17 and June 12. That brings it closer to the gradual shutdowns of other countries, but it's an uncontrolled, chaotic process. Some stations in a market might turn off, while others continue for a few months.
If these issues make the U.S. transition seem brash and poorly planned, there are other factors to consider. The U.S. approach of shutting analog down quickly has substantial advantages. The country can, even with the partial delay, lay claim to being a pioneer in turning off analog signals.
Most developed countries, even advanced ones like Japan, will not turn off all their analog broadcasts until 2011 or 2012. The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, hopes to have the spectrum cleared by 2012 for new services like wireless broadband, but it's far from certain that it will reach that goal. EU members Portugal and Greece haven't even started digital TV transmissions.
Pascal, who has studied the issue for the European Commission, believes every year of delay would cost European economies billions of dollars in missing services.
Other countries have already imposed transition delays like the one Congress voted through this week, though the American move might be unique in that it was approved less than two weeks before the deadline. Italy initially planned to complete its transition in 2006, but had to postpone that by six years. Australia delayed the transition of urban broadcasters to December 2009 from December 2008. In rural Australia, analog will remain until 2013.
The EU members haven't yet decided what to do with the spectrum to be vacated. In the U.S., most of the spectrum has been sold to wireless companies, reaping $19.6 billion for the Treasury. Some of the buyers plan to start using the airwaves this year — potentially giving the country a multiyear jump on advanced wireless services.