osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Digital tuners and the DTV transition

Saw Madfilkentist post on the latest news on the digital transition.

Most regular folks are probably unware that for the last 11 years it has been the avowed policy of the U.S. to move us from analog to digital television. This is actually being done for a practical reason. Money. That is, the U.S. government's, not yours (loser). If you would prefer to remain blissfully ignorant until February 19, 2009, skip this post.

O.K., I will explain. No, that will take too long. I will sum up.

In 1996, the National Association of Broadcasters convinced Congress to give it billions of dollars in free spectrum rights. In exchange, the broadcasters promised to switch to digital, high-definition television. They would then use digital compression technology to "multicast" on 5-7 other streams or offer "ancillary" services using their spectrum more efficiently than current 1960s technology.

From the government perspective, the efficiency of digital will allow TV to get squished down to a smaller section of the frequency band currently reserved for broadcast TV. So the TV broadcasters will "return" spectrum now allocated to channels 52-68 (each channel has 6 MHz of spectrum). 24 MHz of this go to public safety, the rest get auctioned for commercial use (and the guard bands, hopefully, will get used for unlicensed spectrum, but that's another story). We also get high-def, digital TV.

Now the DTV transition was supposed to happen by 2002. But the statute also declared that if less than 85% of the country did not yet get digital, the transition would remain on hold until 85% of the country had access to digital signals.

This created a problem, as the broadcasters had no actual incentive to switch. It was expensive, and no one could agree on a standrad, and, most importantly for this most recent headline, no one had digital tuners in their TV sets, so why bother to do digital TV if no one can get the digital signal.

Meanwhile, the manufacturers of television sets observed that digital tuners were expensive (especially as economies of scale had not kicked in) and there were no digital signals. Who was going to pay an extra grand (initially) for digital tuners (along with analog tuners) if there were no digital signals.

You see the problem, yes?

So the FCC resolved the chicken/egg problem by declaring that all TVs must include digital tuners after a specific date (ultimately March 1, 2007). The FCC regs were sustained on appeal, so that is now the law of the land.

Meanwhile, Congress got very impatient for the return of analog spectrum. In 1996, we had a rapidly declining deficit that ultimately turned into a surplus. So getting back spectrum to auction was no big deal. But then, well, things happened, and the government now found itself absolutely desperate for money it could get without raising taxes. So, in 2005, Congress passed a law requiring broadcasters to cut off analog broadcasts and return the analog spectrum no later than February 19, 2009 (after the Superbowl).

Now, there is also a digital transition going on in radio, but that is very different. It is proceeding at its own pace, on the basis of the FCC's own authority, and is voluntary. So the digital tuner mandate won't impact radio. Although if history is a guide we will eventually mandate a transition to digital radio as well.

For those of you who do not wish to buy a digital TV, that's o.k. You have the following options:

1) Use cable or satellite or some other pay service. They receive the digital signal and "de-rez" it down to analog. In fact, this is very annoying to people who just spent big bucks on digital televisions, because they have discovered they need to upgrade to the cable "digital tier" in order to get digital quality pictures. Those wacky cable guys!

2) Get a digital converter. The government will, eventually, be issuing coupons for discounts for a set of "rabbit ears" you can attach to your TV to receive digital signals and convert them to analog for your analog receiver.

3) Buy your TV shows from iTunes.

We now return you (for now) to your regularly scheduled (analog) broadcast.

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