posted by weildish on Tue 6th Jan 2009 17:28 UTC
IconIf you live in the United States, then it's almost certain you've heard about this big digital switch that public television is making due to a new US law. If you live outside of the US, I bet you've heard of it anyway since we like to let people know what we're up to. The big day that's coming up -- February 17th, 2009 -- that magical date when all television stations will historically abandon the infamous analog broadcasting for greener, digital pastures -- didn't strike fear into the hearts at my household. We rarely utilize the antenna, and then only two to four times a year for a special program. Nonetheless, we got our hands on one of those nifty coupons anyway and went out to purchase a digital converter for the sake of those few intrinsic public broadcats. Read on for the whole story.

When the idea for this editorial was still in conception, I didn't realize just how many people don't use standard analog public television anymore. Apparently some 34.5 million total households residing in the USA, whether using analog television exclusively or as a secondary, 8-inch screen for munching in front of in the kitchen, "are at risk of losing their signals." That's over 27% of households, though not all households in the US actually have a television set. I suppose that's a big enough chunk of the market for broadcasting companies to worry about still pumping commercials into, so now these 34.5 million households get to pay a reasonable price (with a coupon, of course) for a hunk of hardware to add to the heaping collection atop the entertainment center.

What's going to happen to this freed-up 700MHz spectrum when the time comes for the switch? All of that wireless bandwidth has been looking delicious to several markets for some time now, and though opinions vary, it is possible that the companies who purchased chunks of the spectrum will establish widespread wireless Internet networks across the US. AT&T and Verizon, two of the biggest owners of areas in the spectrum, will most likely use their spectrum chunks as networks for 4G cell phones with high data throughput, but that isn't to say that widespread wireless Internet isn't out of the question, especially since there are those who have already been providing this service for some time. AT&T and Verizon had to agree to open-access rules, meaning that other providers could piggyback on their 700MHz networks, such as Google's Android-based phones. However, the interpretation of these rules can be vague, so it's still unclear just how open it's going to be. Other uses for the 700MHz leftovers include a nation-wide emergency communications network.

So there's actually something you deem worthy of wasting your time watching on the tube, and you don't want to lose that. What can you possibly do to keep up this tradition? One, buy a converter for your television. They generally run about $50-$90, and you can get up to two coupons from the government to knock $40 off of the price of each converter. See a list of some of these converters as well as their ratings at Consumer Reports. Two, use it as an excuse to go out and buy a new, flat-panel television pre-equipped with a DTV tuner inside. All televisions sold after March 1st, 2007, have to be digital televisions or else "must prominently display on or near the analog-only device a Consumer Alert label" with a warning stating that the television is an analog-only device.

The lovely thing about this digital transition is that instead of maybe a dozen or so local channels filled to the brim with sick soaps, disgruntling game shows, and, of course, apathetic advertising, you get up to four times as many channels with the same type of programming, but this time in high-quality digital format. Each broadcasting station now can have several programs running at once, though it's likely that not all stations will choose to utilize this feature known as "multicasting." You can already access many digital channels by using your digital converter or the digital tuner on your newer television. Go ahead, try it. Most stations are already broadcasting on at least one of the several multicasting channels. A fair warning if you decide to make the switch early: after the official switching day, some stations' channels might change, so you'll have to rescan once more after that point in time.

A common misconception about all of this kerfuffle is that those subscribing to cable have to pay the cable company extra money to get a converter for their cable channels. This is utter nonsense, not to mention cheap and dishonest. Some cable companies are "switching major channels from the basic cable package to a premium tier." Since this "premium tier," as it were, is usually only in digital format, the consumer is forced to purchase a converter box from the company if the consumer wishes to keep on watching those channels. When the consumer complains, the company tells him/her that it's due to the government's digital TV transition. That is a flat-out lie. The new laws only govern over-the-air television; cable companies may keep their analog services if they wish to. While cable companies are claiming that the timing of their switch and the government's switch is completely coincidental, there have been many cases filed against them. In retrospect, "the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which represents the major cable firms, has written to congress to say it will offer free digital cable boxes to existing analog customers until June." Also, they have "agreed to cut down the number of channels moving to digital between January and February next year to minimize confusion." Sure. You bet it was coincidence.

I don't know about you, but all of this digital switching is making me dizzy. Of course, if you're currently getting your TV over-the-air, you could scrap the TV idea and just get my couch-potatoing entertainment from the Internet or get a Netflix account and watch DVDs or Bu-Rays. Saves you from the commercials, to be sure, and then you don't have to buy a digital converter. On a side note, the one we purchased looks fine enough after installation, but once you neglect it for a little while, its once friendly blue eye turns red and demonic. A converter possessed by the Devil is not my idea of fun. I may be forced to put a dagger through its processing unit before the year is out (does it have one?).

It stared at me with that glaringly red eye, ready to strike at any moment...

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