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Congress, Broadcasters, Hinder HDTV

In January, tens of thousands of people flocked to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (search) to see the latest gadgets and gizmos from companies like Sony, Toshiba, Apple and a host of other manufacturers.

One of the highlights of the show was the fantastic televisions. Flat Screen TV’s are the future and High Definition Television (search) is the new star. But is HDTV really the wave of the future? It can be, but Congress needs to allow more competition in the HDTV market place by modernizing an obscure piece of legislation called the Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act (search).

The purpose of this legislation is simple: millions of families rely on over the air signals for their TV. But in many parts of the country, especially rural America, the quality of this signal is terrible or non-existent. Since cable companies found it too expensive to run cable to these outlying areas and the local broadcasters signal strength wasn’t strong enough to send a decent picture, Congress allows DBS companies (search) like DirecTV and Dish Network to transmit an out of market signal to these customers so they can receive NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox. But SHVIA only applies to last century’s technology and does not address HDTV.

By modernizing SHVIA, Congress can spur competition in the broadcast industry. Allowing DBS companies to also deliver Network High Definition programming to tens of millions of people who don’t get it right now would be a huge boost in the amount of competition in this market and allows customer access to these new innovations

Anyone who has seen a broadcast on HDTV is instantly impressed by the clarity and definition of the picture. Page through the sales brochures in your Sunday paper and you will see dozens of advertisements for this new technology. Sports fans especially lust after them. To many, it’s like having the game played in your living room.

Unfortunately, consumers, manufacturers and broadcasters are trapped in a vicious cycle of chicken and egg. Sales of HDTV’s are on the rise, but they are not taking off fast enough for the price to drop so average consumers can afford to purchase them. The primary reason sales have not jumped is because folks are hesitant to pay big money for an HDTV when there is inadequate programming available. In fact, to receive an HDTV picture now, many people have to mount a 20 foot antenna on your house that will set you back about $1000.

But why is programming so scarce? In 1996, Congress gave the broadcasters 10 years and $80 billion dollars worth of digital spectrum (search) to begin the transition to HDTV. Once the roll out was complete, the broadcasters would return their analog spectrum (search) to the FCC to be auctioned off for new uses such as the third generation of wireless phones (search) and redeployed for first responders (search) to use. Some economists predict that this auctioning of the analog spectrum could yield over $100 billion for the U.S. Treasury.

Unfortunately, broadcasters have been extremely slow in rolling out HDTV technology. It has been six years and they are nowhere near ready to offer full service to American consumers. Broadcasters are not willing to spend the money to get HDTV programming to everyone because there are not enough people who would watch it. Plus, building the towers to broadcast in HDTV is expensive and many people don’t want more towers in their neighborhoods. Manufacturers can’t sell enough TV’s to get the costs down, so a whole subset of consumers sits on the sideline until they can afford the TV. And everyone loses because HDTV remains a buzzword, yet hardly any of us can watch it.

Satellite companies are ready, willing, and able to deliver HDTV to almost every household in the U.S. The satellite industry’s solution is fairly simple. In those areas where people cannot currently get an HDTV signal, let satellite companies deliver a channel, most likely the national feed out of New York or Los Angeles, to anyone who wants it. For example, over 99 million people tuned into this year’s Super Bowl, but only a minuscule percentage was watching the game in High Definition Television because most people cannot get an over-the-air HD signal. But a signal is available for HDTV via satellite.

Will American consumers go out and by a new HD capable TV if there is more programming available? Count on it. Broadcasters are hindering development of this product and have failed to fully deliver on their promise to provide us with HD technology. This has caused slow sales of HDTV’s and is monopolizing valuable spectrum that the government could utilize for new technologies. Fortunately, satellite companies have an innovative solution. Congress should quickly approve this legislation to make HDTV a reality for every American consumer.

Jim Prendergast is the executive director of  Americans for Technology Leadership.