Surviving the Digital Television Transition

On February 17, 2009, the Federal Communications Commision (FCC) has mandated that over-the-air broadcast television switch over from analog transmission to digital transmission. Despite all the press, there is a pretty good chance that this will not affect you in any way. But there is also a chance that your television will go dark forever. So let's sort this out.

Should you care?

The digital television (DTV) transition will only impact analog broadcast television. If you rely on cable TV or a satellite dish for all of your television needs, then you will not be affected.

If you have an HDTV (let us note here that DTV and HDTV are not the same thing) with a high-definition receiver (an "HDTV" as opposed to an "HD-ready" TV, or an "HD-ready" TV with a separate HDTV receiver), then you will not be affected.

If you have a fairly new television (high-definition or otherwise) that has a DTV tuner, you will not be affected. Your television might be marketed as a "standard-definition TV" (SDTV).

Note that many newer televisions do not have a DTV tuner, including some that are available for sale as of this writing. The FCC has mandated that manufacturers may not produce, import, or ship between states any televisions without DTV tuners, but retailers may continue to sell existing stock. Retailers are now required to display a notice indicating the television lacks a DTV tuner, but not all have actually done so.

And as a further note, only "full power" broadcast stations will be affected. Your local ABC affiliate, for example, is almost certainly a "full power" station. However, some very small local stations broadcast at lower power and are exempt from this transition. For them, the switch is currently optional.

In keeping with 10stripe's love of tables, we have reduced this information down to a table format:

    How you currently get TV
Analog over-the-air Digital over-the-air HD over-the-air Cable/satellite
TV type Analog TV Uh-oh A-OK A-OK A-OK
"HD ready"/"HD monitor" Uh-oh A-OK A-OK A-OK

If you are in one of the "uh-oh" categories, you will be affected. So what can you do about it?

What should you do?

If you will not be affected, then of course you do not have to do anything. If you will be affected, then you have three options.

The first option is to subscribe to a cable or satellite television service. These services will not be impacted by the transition at all.

The second option is to replace your television. While obviously a fairly expensive proposition, buying a new TV with a digital tuner ensures you will continue to receive over-the-air broadcasts. This option is probably best suited to people who have very old televisions, were already considering a new television, or have a portable television.

The third option is to buy a digital-to-analog converter. These devices receive the digital broadcast and convert it into an analog format. The federal government has instituted a program to provide coupons, up to 2 per household, valued at $40, to be used toward the purchase of these converter boxes. The government maintains a list of eligible devices that the coupons may be spent on. Not suprisingly, many of the devices are priced at multiples of $40. Users need one device for each television that will receive over-the-air broadcasts.

Why is the FCC doing this?

When broadcast television was a completely new medium, the FCC set rules for the range of electromagnetic frequencies that broadcast television could use. Believing that the technology would be huge, the FCC allocated a very large swath of the spectrum. Believing that the technology was very important and would be challenging to transmit over large distances (and in urban environments), the FCC allocated some of the best spectrum to the task. Broadcast television was given a part of the spectrum that can travel large distances efficiently and penetrate obstructions well.

However, the FCC greatly overestimated the number of stations that would come into being. As a result, a large portion of the spectrum allocated for broadcast television was left unused. And because of FCC rules, this spectrum could not easily be re-allocated for some other purpose. The "wasted" spectrum was quite valuable, and getting more valuable all the time.

Eventually there was a movement to free up this spectrum and put it to use. By this time digital television broadcast technology had begun to mature, and so the FCC had an opportunity to greatly condense the spectrum allocated to television while possibly increasing the number of channels. A non-HD digital television channel actually takes up considerably less bandwidth than an analog television channel; an HD channel takes up a similar amount of bandwidth to an analog channel.

In 1996, Congress set the gears in motion by authorizing the FCC to begin designating digital channels for existing analog television broadcasters. Congress would later set a date for a complete transition to all-digital broadcasting, which was revised several times after various roadblocks were encountered. February 17, 2009, was the final date chosen.

The FCC has already auctioned off much of the spectrum that will be made available on February 17, in a multi-part auction that drew a great deal of media attention. PC World has a solid primer with background on the auction itself. The big winners were Verizon and AT&T, both established cellular phone players, who will use the new spectrum to boost their plans to roll out faster LTE cellular networks.

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