Thursday, July 10, 2008

Analog Television Demise Signals No Reception for Millions of Poor Consumers

Both cable and network television have their hands full trying to remain on the radar of the millions of consumers who now gravitate to the Web for news, communication, information, shopping, travel-planning, entertainment and increasingly content that was once the exclusive domain of television.

On February 17, 2009 the entire television broadcast industry is going fully digital. It's hard to miss the commercials warning of the impending switch. Cable companies around the country have committed $1 billion to educating consumers about the switch, and offering information about how to apply for government subsidized coupons from the Department of Commerce (wouldn't want anyone missing all that commercial advertising...) to offset the purchase price of a new digital converter.

But what exactly does this "switch" mean?

For one it means the tried and true analog signal that broadcasts over the 700 megahertz band, the same one that's brought us countless hours of television programming for decades, will simply no longer work; if you don't have cable that is.

The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 makes it law with the stamp of the United States Congress. In a page ripped right out of the "Large Cable Company Wish List", Congress has made the purchase of new digital televisions and digital cable boxes mandatory if you want to watch TV.

In a secret bidding process that most Americans don't even really know about, the FCC auctioned off the 700 megahertz band for an eye-opening $19.6 billion in early 2008.

700 MHz penetrates walls and large telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon will now use a portion of it to handle the massive bandwidth needs of consumers using mobile phones, PDA's, Blackberry's, iPhones and laptop computers to download and share content over the Internet. The government will also turn some space over to emergency channels for firemen and police.

One thing that concerns me is that there are millions of low-income people in America who currently still use the old "rabbit-ears" or rooftop TV receptors to watch television. A disproportionate number of those people are Hispanic and African-Americans. Some can't afford a new digital-ready television, some just can't afford the high monthly fees to get cable.
Some just have no desire to get cable. Regardless, by February 10, 2008 they won't be able to watch TV.

There's something inherently unfair about that to me and it comes with a lot of ethical questions; and some environmental ones too. Senior editor Kenneth Hein explored some of these questions in the June 30, 2008 issue of Brandweek.

The digital transition has an array of permutations, more content, more bandwidth, more devices interconnected to the Internet - but it also means millions of Americans living on the fringes of the economy being totally cut off from television broadcast content, including news and public television, because they simply cannot afford the connection.

That's a lot of people left out of the digital equation.

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