Delaying DTV Could Mean Longer Wait for LTE

[qi:032] President-elect Barack Obama is asking Congress to delay the transition that will force the nation’s TV broadcasts to switch from analog to digital signals. Depending on how long the delay is, it could affect the deployment of several services destined for the spectrum currently occupied by those analog TV signals. Those services range from Verizon’s (s VZ) LTE deployment to Qualcomm’s (s QCOM) plans to broadcast mobile digital televison in markets such as San Francisco and Miami.

A research report from investment bank Stifel Nicolaus Associates downplays the risks of a short delay, as long as it doesn’t extend past mid-May, but it also points out that the move could leave the door open to further delays. From the report:

We do not believe an extension of this length would significantly affect any of the winning bidders of the 700 MHz spectrum, including most significantly Verizon Wireless and AT&T (s T). We believe the broadcasters would be quietly relieved.

Obama’s request came a few days after the program that issued coupons to offset the cost of digital converter boxes said it would run out of money and could not respond to all the requests for coupons. Consumer’s Union, the organization that publishes Consumer Reports, issued a statment saying, “The federal government is getting $19 billion from selling the analog TV spectrum, while people with analog TVs have to go out and spend their own money for a converter box.” It asked Congress to wait.

While we wait on Congress, white spaces broadband will be on hold (it’s designed to occupy spaces between the digital signals in the DTV spectrum); any deployments by cell phones companies in their 700 MHz bands will be paused, including Verizon’s aggressive plans for deploying LTE; and Cox Cable’s wireless plans will also face a delay as the company plans to use 700 MHz spectrum for some of its services. Perhaps the most immediate effects would be felt by Qualcomm, which has ambitious plans to turn on its MediaFLO mobile TV service in some markets as soon as the digital conversion is complete.

Given that a few million people are likely to be affected by the DTV switch and that it’s unclear if Qualcomm even has that many mobile TV subscribers, I suppose the wait will still benefit the greater number of people. However, if delays start pushing back white spaces and LTE, it’s time to accept that there will always be people who will wake up one day surprised and angry to find their analog TV dark. Perhaps the affected spectrum owners can find the laggards and show up at their door with new TVs.