LANSING — Under an order passed three years ago by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Michigan's 14 public broadcasting stations must convert from analog to a digital broadcast system by 2003.

Why? The feds say it's because digital systems transmit better pictures, can carry more than one signal at a time, and are easier to transmit to computers, none of which necessitates the switch. The real reason is more likely that communications technology is overtaking the government's controlled system of broadcast spectrum allocation, and the feds are scrambling to accommodate it. The FCC wants to sell the airwave space public radio and television stations currently occupy to wireless communications companies.

Unfortunately, the public broadcast stations want the state of Michigan — i.e., the taxpayers — to pay for the conversion, which may cost an estimated $44 million. Gov. Engler so far has refused, blaming stations for not modernizing their facilities the way private stations do in response to market pressures, and the federal government for mandating the upgrade without providing funds for it.

Some observers note it would be easier for the government to simply get out of the broadcast business, open the spectrum market to all bidders, serve as auctioneer, and let the broadcasting market work these issues out in a voluntary fashion.