Television switch to digital will be dramatic for viewers
By Sue Doyle, Staff Writer LA Daily News
(Staff Writer Lisa Friedman contributed to this report.) 10/19/2007
One in five Americans who still fiddle with rabbit ears to get better TV picture quality will be blown away by the digital revolution - and most of them don't even know it yet.
While still more than a year off, the national switch to digital from analog transmissions is the biggest change in TV transmission standards since the birth of color broadcasting in 1953.
Most Americans won't even notice when the analog signal is cut on Feb. 17, 2009, because they already have digital sets or cable or satellite service.
But converter boxes for analog sets will go on sale soon, along with a marketing blitz from cable and satellite companies and TV manufacturers, all hoping to capitalize on consumer confusion.
"This is going to be the most amazing blindside in American history," said Tracy Westen, CEO of the Center for Governmental Studies, a Los Angeles-based nonpartisan research organization. "It's like a tsunami that's coming in 2009, and we know it's coming but nobody is paying attention."
In fact, nearly two-thirds of Americans have no idea about the upcoming change, according to a survey for the Association of Public Television Stations.
The congressional mandate replaces analog, a technology used for TV since its start in the 1930s that transmits signals by airwaves.
The change to digital will improve picture and sound quality from analog transmissions and allows the transfer of more data to consumers. It also frees up precious airwave spectrum space for the government to create a national public-safety frequency.
The remainder of the spectrum will be sold at public auction, with wireless commercial giants expected to bid billions to get a share of it.
What to do?
The options available to analog TV owners are:
1) Upgrade to a digital TV set - from $150.
2) Subscribe to cable or satellite service - about $600 per year.
3) Buy a digital converter box - about $50 to $75.
To ease the transition for consumers, the federal government has set aside $990 million to offer two $40 coupons to households to help pay for converter boxes, also called tuners.
The voucher program will begin in January and will be administered through the U.S. Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Also, all TV sets sold in the U.S. since March have had to contain digital tuner receivers. And as of May, all older TVs still on the market must have labels showing they have analog tuners and will require converter boxes.
Using a traditional old TV inside his Canoga Park home, Luis Diaz was unaware it will fade to black in 2009. He said he would probably buy a converter for it.
"I don't have time to watch TV so it's not too important to me," he said. "But buying the converter feels like a waste of time."
About 21million U.S. households - 19 percent of the country - do not subscribe to cable or satellite services, according to a Government Accountability Office survey.
"Many homes may lose complete access to television in the transition ... We cannot allow this to happen - people need television access to get news in an emergency scenario," said Rep. Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino.
"We must have proper outreach to ensure our senior citizens, disabled individuals, and lower-income families are aware of the changes they need to make."
While the remaining 80million or so homes do have cable or satellite service, they might not have it hooked up on all their TVs and will have to decide what to do if they want reception on them, said Mark Cooper, Consumer Federation of America research director.
Although he has digital TVs at home, Marty Fadaei, 45, of Calabasas said it's not fair that the federal government is forcing Americans to accept the digital transition or be left in the dark.
Even with the coupons, it's not a fair way to run the country, he said.
"That's terrible. They will control it. It's not the right way to do things," he said. "This is a democracy, and you are telling people what they have to buy."
As the deadline for analog draws near, it's likely that lower-income, non-English-speaking and senior residents won't even be aware of the change, Cooper said.
In fact, it's estimated that about 16million households will lose all TV reception when analog signals are cut off, according to a report from the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union.
At the same time, Cooper warns that consumers will be bombarded with ads from businesses preying on their confusion about digital TVs, cable services and converter boxes.
"They may be stampeded into making the wrong choice and spending a lot more money than they have to because they don't understand what's going on," he said.
Ultimately, the switch from analog will free 60MHz of valuable airwave spectrum space. Of that, 20 MHz will be used for a national public-safety frequency and broadband network for police, fire and emergency rescue, said Robert Kenny, spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission's public safety department.
"The channels will be available for public safety to communicate with each other," he said. "It will help with first responders - not just with emergencies - but it will enable them to work together every day."
But the bidding war for leftover airwaves is expected to be fierce.
"The real winners are people who get access to the spectrum who haven't had access before because it was held up by broadcasters," said Drew Clark, project manager for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan government ethics watchdog.
"Wireless companies will be among the big winners in the transition because there's a new spectrum."
Already eyeing the expected $10 billion to $20 billion from the auction, Congress has proposed using $4.7 billion to reduce the federal deficit in 2010 and has allocated about $5 billion toward emergency communications.
Still, with little publicity and public education surrounding the transition, the next U.S. administration will be in for some hard times in 2009 when they take office and a month later the country moves to digital, Westen said.
"They won't be prepared. They're a new administration," she said. "They'll still be looking for their desks."http://www.dailynews.com/portlet/art...092&siteId=200