THE BLOG
01/13/2010 10:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's First Fault as President

It is in asking for delaying the digital TV transition.

Some people still did not get the message about the incoming conversion. Working in the TV service business, I can testify that if we delay the changeover for four years (not four months) there still will be people not ready. About 14% of adults in the U.S. cannot read. It does not take a genius to figure out that most of the "not-ready" are in this group. Then there are some old people confused with our technology rollercoaster. Those that are not ready are not -- for whatever reason - capable of managing the transition themselves; someone needs to do it for them.

If the objective were helping those still not ready for the digital TV transition, President Obama could ask that, on the national Day of Service, volunteers would go and assist those in need. By the end of the day, we could add up the numbers from the reports and we would know exactly how many people were helped that day, or at least identified as needing help with the digital TV conversion. Instead, President Obama made a lofty general appeal. Maybe some people went and did something useful; however, my impression from reports was that it boiled down to spinning the wheels and beating foam with no lasting results.

An attentive observer noticed that AT&T advocated delaying the digital TV transition, but Verizon advocated the opposite. It is worth mentioning that none of these telephone giants provide analog TV nor do they have any stake in the new off-air digital TV.

Highly paid AT&T executives would not waste their time advocating for some old ladies lost in this digital transition. They have their eyes on the new frequencies that will become available for telecommunication services like wireless internet and mobile TV, as soon as old style analog TV will cease to exist. All major telephone companies invested billions of dollars in these projects; however, apparently, not all of them are equally ready to take full advantage of the new frequencies as soon as they will become available after the digital TV transition. In particular, it looks like AT&T is not as advanced as its competitors are. Therefore, every delay in digital TV transition gives AT&T a competitive advantage.

In this context, AT&T earned the title of the hypocrite of the month when writing in their letter to Congress: "From AT&T's perspective, a smooth transition from analog broadcast transmission to digital is in the public interest and will ultimately benefit all Americans". However, they got the President's ear.

Under the icing of the sweet talk about the public interest and ultimate benefits for all Americans, lobbyists went to work and did what lobbyists have always been doing: they convinced the President and worked out the Senate. Broadcasters that made significant investments in executing the transition on February 17 would lose money if transition would be delayed; for instance, PBS reported that it would cost them $22 million. Therefore, after the surprise Senate vote, they put their lobbyists to work on Congress, so far blocking the delay. Not even one week passed after the lofty beginning until the old style politics prevailed, marking return to politics as usual in Washington.

Most Americans are prepared for the final departure of analog TV. Those lost in transition would start screaming on February 18, and within 24 hours, 90% of them would be assisted by neighbors, family, or community organizers. Within three days, it would be over. However, the new administration told us that they would not be able to do it.

After all, the digital TV transition is not the most essential matter. However, a much larger question lingers above this experience: what else will our new President not be able to do?