Flash forward to Feb. 18, 2009. It’s morning and you stumble out of bed into the kitchen, pouring a cup of coffee and settling in at the table, glancing at a newspaper before you pick up the television remote to watch the morning’s news. Pointing it at the screen, you press the “power” button and nothing happens. Over and over, no matter how many times you try to turn on the television, all you get is a blank screen. But the only thing “wrong” with your TV is that it’s an analog set, and the government has decided that analog technology is a thing of the past.
On Feb. 17, 2009, the United States is going completely digital in its television transmissions. Stations that now broadcast in both digital and analog will be effectively switching off their analog signals, possibly rendering many households in the dark that still own older television sets. The legislation, though, is no surprise to TV stations and those involved in telecommunication – the 2009 cutoff date has actually been moved back. The original dates, however, were only designed as target dates – this new 2009 date is the final one.[channels2]
“Before there weren’t enough people with digital TV sets, broadcasters and cable companies worried about losing viewers, cable companies worried about channel capacity – finally it just came down to we have to do it,” said Robert LaRose, professor of telecommunication.
The switch to digital means better quality TV for those who either have a digital TV or a digital converter box. Not only does analog TV require more spectrum to convey information, it is also prone to inaccuracies that cause static. This is because analog transmissions are continuous, while digital signals are less prone to environmental interference because they transmit discrete signals.
[larose]”With continuous transmission, all the interference the system doesn’t recognize as external to the actual message gets included. With digital, there’s improved separation between relevant content and noise,” assistant telecommunication professor Constantinos Coursaris said.
Digital signals make possible the high-definition programming that many Americans already use to watch the Super Bowl. HDTV comes from the same digital signals that go to any digital television, but in order to see the higher quality, one must have the TV for it, and the original recording must be digital, too. Because HDTV uses up so much bandwidth, it can only go to one channel, but there are levels below HDTV – enhanced definition and standard definition – that can be transmitted to more channels and have better quality than analog TV.
The advantages of digital television have been known since the 1980s, when music began to switch over to CDs, said Gary Reid, senior specialist in the telecommunication department. Not long afterward, Japan and other countries started the digitization of video, using broadcast TV as the medium of choice. “The initial impetus started with trying to get better quality and better bandwidth capacity,” Reid said.
Soon afterwards, the United States went through about a decade of testing in digital television. The FCC allocated another channel to transmit signals digitally because there wasn’t enough bandwidth in existing television space. This allowed for stations to broadcast both in analog and digital at the same time, which most stations continue to do today. There was, however, initial reluctance on the part of television stations. Reid said the average amount per station to convert to digital transmitting was about $10 million, and this expenditure had no return; converting to digital does not mean gaining new viewers. But when the FCC mandated the switch, TV stations finally converted and broadcast both types of signals simultaneously.
Competition with foreign television industries also played a role, according to Steve Wildman, chair of the Quello Center for Telecommunication Management and Law at MSU. “The shift historically arose initially because the United States worried foreign standards would come to dominate the U.S. market,” Wildman said.
A TV standard is needed to coordinate between manufacturers, producers and all involved in broadcast. Wildman cited Japan as an example, which uses analog as its standard. “The United States would only consider digital as a standard, which would eliminate Japanese competition,” he said.
Reasons for why the switch was necessary hit closer to home after the Sept. 11 attacks and the “frenzy” for homeland security, Reid said. “During the attack, firefighters, police and first responders weren’t able to effectively communicate with each other; there was a cry that we need to improve emergency communication,” Reid said.
For large disasters, a lot of the communication spectrum is needed to effectively coordinate emergency services. Analog transmissions take up more of the spectrum than digital, and by switching over, more transmissions are freed up for public safety.
The freed analog spectrum is going to more than just public safety, though. The FCC is in the midst of a spectrum auction involving 200 companies, including Google, Verizon Wireless and AT&T. “Wireless providers are experiencing spectrum shortages – this is real estate for them,” Coursaris said.
These extra bands, or ranges of frequency, are perfect for third generation cell phones, for example. Coursaris described that there is an increasing trend of third generation phones consisting of “smart phones” – phones that can access the Internet and perform more functions than traditional cell phones. “Typical wireless transmissions are really slow. Mobile phone users would benefit from the additional spectrum in terms of quality and the volume of information they can receive,” he said.
Some countries have already figured out that wireless providers will pay governments a lot to have faster service for their cell phones. In 2001, Taiwanese providers paid a total $973 million to gain access to these frequencies, and European auctions pulled in $48.1 billion, according to Coursaris. “I don’t expect it to be to that degree here, but it will be a significant revenue generation for the government,” he said. He expects U.S. auctions to pull in $15-20 billion.
The quality, security and economic benefits are numerous, but what does this shift mean to the average TV viewer? For those who have cable or satellite TV, it means nothing, at least at the moment. “Cable operators own the wires themselves,” said Kurt DeMaagd, assistant professor in the telecommunication department. “It’s up to them to determine what signals go out.” However, Reid said cable and satellite TV is downgraded from broadcast TV to take advantage of the bandwidth. “If you want to see best quality video picture of them all, it’s HD on free over-the-air broadcasts, not cable,” Reid said. [tv12]
For those who have digital TVs, that’s good news, but there are still about 13 million households in the country with analog TVs, according to a Nielson Co. report. Those users have about a year to either buy a new digital TV – all new TVs are now digital, according to legislation passed last summer – or buy a digital converter box that sits on top of their existing analog TV. DeMaagd described the converter’s duty: “It takes DTV signals and translates them to the traditional analog method so TVs can still listen to signals in the way they’re used to listening to them.” This means, however, that with just a converter box, one can’t receive the enhanced quality of digital TV.
This might mean an increase in the market for new TVs – there’s a chance many people will use this as an excuse to throw out the old TV and get a new plasma or widescreen one. In fact, LaRose said he believes this shift might just be a “move to make us all want to throw out our existing TVs. And who’s going to make the next generation of TVs? It might make a lot of money for U.S.-based patent holders and U.S. TV companies.”
However, the government is focusing its attention on the converter boxes, offering $40 vouchers to go toward one, which can be applied for online. These vouchers are part of an effort on the government’s part to make the transition easier. The moment a decision like that is made while there’s still a significant user base dependent on ‘rabbit ears’, you have to setup a mechanism to facilitate the transition,” Coursaris said. “It starts with awareness.” In order to inform the public this switch is occurring, the FCC has made an extensive Web site that counts down the hours, days and minutes to the switch. The site even has a quiz that allows you to become a “DTV Deputy,” complete with a four-color certificate.
The FCC is also requiring TV stations to run public service announcements about the switch. However, it’s uncertain how effective these have been, because a PSA means less advertising money for TV stations. “Broadcasters don’t want to run PSAs over primetime because it takes away from ads,” DeMaagd said. “TV stations and broadcasters don’t have incentives – it’s the choice to run a free PSA and charging a paid advertiser.” He added the government hasn’t done enough yet to educate the public.
It’s fallen to industry groups and service providers themselves to run ads and make Web sites to help ease the transition. But Coursaris described one Comcast commercial as “threatening and limiting in offering a consumer the full range of possibilities,” and DeMaagd also said commercials are not letting people know what the switch means for them. The problem is commercials tend to push the converter box as the only option. “With the way current ads are being shown, most consumers know they have to get the box, but they’re getting very few of the benefits if they’re just using the box – they’re not getting the better quality,” DeMaagd said. “There needs to be more phasing in of the process and simultaneous broadcasting of analog and digital. As technology, it’s an overdue switch. But from a project management perspective, it’s been poorly run.”
[demaagd]Undecided freshman Kevin Smith falls under the category of those who know about the switch, but do not fully understand its reasons or what it means for the consumer. His family still has two analog TVs at home, and he said he has been “bugging” his parents to get new TVs, but they are upset about the cost and have not yet switched. He found out about the switch through Comcast, his Internet provider, but he had not heard everybody was going to have to make the switch. The only way he really knows about digital TV is through his friends who have newer televisions.
Smith also knows about the converter box option but not that the quality coming in from a converter box is sub-par compared to that on a fullscale digital TV, and he was unaware of the spectrum auctions. “I didn’t know the reasons behind it. There should be more statements and PSAs, considering I hadn’t been informed, and I watch the news,” he said. “It you want digital, get digital. But I think a lot of people are happier staying analog or switching on their own.”
There needs to be more opportunities for the public to be trained directly, face-to-face, especially for those uncomfortable with technology, according to Coursaris. This may especially affect elderly people and those who only watch TV occasionally. Some, such as Reid’s mother, sent in her converter box application the first day it was available, but for those who have difficulty connecting the wires and who don’t understand the technology, they may only get a blank screen come Feb. 2009.
Many stores, especially around the area, also do not stock the box, and for lower income people who can’t afford a new TV set, this could potentially leave many in the dark. And even with the converter box, older TV sets may not be up to par with the new digital technology in something called the “cliff effect,” according to LaRose. “If you have a marginal signal now with your television, you’re going to just totally lose it,” he said. “The potential for hidden costs for people not able to afford it are bulldozed over.”
And the $40 chosen as the voucher amount compared to the revenue the government could potentially, and probably will, receive from the spectrum auctions may seem a little low. Coursaris questioned whether the government should give out boxes for free, especially for those with lower incomes. He estimated the government will spend about $1.5 billion on vouchers, and that it would only be about an extra $1 billion to give the vouchers for free – which is considerably less than the revenue from the auctions.
“If you want improved reception quality, then fine, go and buy a new set. But if you simply want to continue watching TV, shouldn’t it be the government’s responsibility to continue the provision of access at a basic level?” he said. “Are we taking care of every single consumer, or just taking steps to appease the general public?” [tv13]
Although the transition has been a long time coming, there are still many questions to answer that the government seems to skip over. Among the TV-watching public, even those who know the switch is occurring do not always know the reasons behind it or what it means for their TV sets. According to a Consumers Union survey, 58 percent of the public who know about the transition believe all televisions need a converter box to work after the switch, while 24 percent believe they have to throw out their analog televisions.
And if all these televisions are thrown out, it’s uncertain where they’ll end up. The expansion in landfills could be great. Web sites such as mygreenelectronics.org give information about recycling electronic products, but how many Americans think about electronics as potential recycling material? The effect on the environment is still unknown.
Then, of course, there are those who have no idea of the switch at all – the Consumers Union survey reported 36 percent of respondents were completely unaware of the transition. Kinesiology sophomore Lydia Good falls under this category and, moreover, has no idea of the difference between analog and digital. After being told about the transition, she said, “It sounds like it’s for good reasons, and I hope to learn more about it. I hope they make more of an effort to inform people, especially if people are losing signals and they don’t know why.”
She doesn’t know if her TV is equipped for the switch or if on Feb. 18, 2009, she’ll turn on her TV only to find a blank screen and be left in the dark.