Digital TV moves forward, for now

The House of Representatives has blocked a bill that would have postponed the switch to digital TV, but it could be back:

The switch to digital television will go on as scheduled after the House yesterday blocked a bill to delay the date, saying postponing the action would only cause confusion for consumers and increase costs for broadcasters. . .

The bill was considered in the House yesterday under suspension of the rules, a procedure generally used for noncontroversial items. As a result, the bill saw only a short debate and no amendments were allowed. The vote was 258-168, with most Republicans voting against it. The bill needed a two-thirds majority to pass.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees telecommunications issues, said he wants to bring the same bill back to the floor next week under regular order, meaning that it would need only a simple majority to pass.

The libertarian position on this issue isn’t clear to me.  Forcing people to buy new television sets doesn’t sound very good, to be sure, but the problem is the government controls the radio spectrum, so we won’t ever modernize the system without government action.  Barring privatization of the radio spectrum (out of the question in today’s political climate, I suppose), the switchover plan — to use some of the proceeds from sale of radio spectrum (formerly allocated to analog TV) to provide DTV converter coupons — seems like an acceptable one, in principle.

However, there have been a host of practical problems.  One is that the coupon program is out of money.  (Isn’t it quaint to worry about a paltry $1.34 billion program running out of money these days!) Another is the problem of digital dead zones, areas that can receive an analog signal but not yet a digital one.  So I think the case for a delay (e.g., by Consumer Reports) is a decent one.

Unfortunately, things are more complicated than that, due to competing business interests.  The companies that would use the newly-reallocated spectrum for 4G networks are in varying degrees of preparation.  Those who are most ready (such as Verizon) want the switch to take place on schedule.  They argue that they paid billions for the new spectrum, and the government should deliver it as promised. (Again, how quaint!)  Others who are behind (such as AT&T and Clearwire) want a delay, so that they too can be ready on day one, or close to it.

And that’s where a huge White House conflict-of-interest comes in:

Enter Gerry Salemme. A telecom industry veteran; former lobbyist; and Clearwire executive vice president for strategy, policy, and external affairs, Salemme has also been a generous Obama supporter. Early in the primary season, Salemme gave the maximum $2,300 to Obama for America, and then in August threw in another $10,000 to the Obama Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee that accepts large contributions and carves them up between the party and candidate. . .  Once the race to the White House was won, Salemme scrounged another $5,000 for the transition effort.

As of this writing, Salemme is not mentioned anywhere on the site—which lists members of the Obama transition’s staff, policy working groups, and agency review teams—nor has there been any public announcement of his involvement with the presidential transition. A spokesman for his company says that Salemme “remains in his position as Executive VP at Clearwire.” But Ars has learned that Salemme has been on leave using accrued vacation and joined the Obama transition team as a key adviser on DTV issues. . .

Salemme is widely praised for his expertise, both in the tech industry and on Capitol Hill. . . But Salemme’s high position with a primary competitor of Verizon—the company most vocally protesting that it would be adversely affected by a delay—creates an unavoidable appearance of conflict of interest.

(Via Instapundit.)

And it’s not just Clearwire, Salemme is also involved with a second company that would also profit from a delay.  His involvement puts a huge stink on the effort to delay the switchover.  Any delay now carries the taint of government corruption.  With all the countervailing factors, I think government integrity is the deciding one, and the switchover should proceed on schedule.

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