Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cutting through the digital TV static

Three months from today, the television broadcast system that most Americans watched growing up will sign off forever.

Through a handful of measures since 1996, Congress has ordered most broadcast stations to phase out their use of conventional analog transmission and switch their signals to digital technology by the end of Feb 17, 2009.

For most TV viewers, the digital transition already has taken place, even if they don’t realize it. About 93 percent of broadcast stations – most affiliates of the national networks such as CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS and Fox – are sending their signals digitally today, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

Cable TV companies have sold digital packages for years, sending programs through digital set-top boxes for subscribers. Other TV service providers, such as satellite companies and Verizon Communications, tout “all-digital” lineups that have severed their customers’ connections to the old format.

Still, in more than 9 million households nationwide and an estimated 44,500 in Hampton Roads, the old analog TV picture is the only one some people watch, according to statistics released last month by The Nielsen Co.

When they go to turn on their televisions Wednesday morning Feb. 18, their screens will show dead air.

Unless they get ready.

When asked about the reason for the switch to digital TV, Federal Communications Commission and industry officials tout the public benefits. They emphasize that the use of digital technology – which can compress more channels into less spectrum – will free up room on the broadcast airwaves for public-safety uses, particularly communications between police, fire and emergency rescue departments.

New space on the broadcast spectrum also gives telecommunications companies an opportunity to bring more services, such as wireless broadband, to consumers.

And digital signals offer better picture clarity and sound quality.

The digital switch clearly benefits business as well. Wireless companies can use freed-up frequencies to sell additional services to customers. Cable operators can multiply the number of channels in the same bandwidth they needed for a single analog channel, allowing them to offer more program tiers and packages.

“It’s about using this national resource more inventively,” said Deborah Taylor Tate, an FCC commissioner, during a panel presentation that the National Association of Broadcasters organized a week ago to mark the 100-day countdown to the digital TV transition.

These benefits, though, aren’t so much the reasons for the government’s digital TV mandate as the results of it. Lawmakers got involved because, as the broadcast industry pushed to upgrade its technology, they saw a need to protect the public interest.

First, they sought to ensure that the change would leave no analog TV owners in the dark. Second, Congress wanted to reclaim the old analog spectrum – and to garner the proceeds from the sale of it – as broadcasters abandoned it for digital channels.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2006, to complete the transition. The following year, another law added the provision that the final switch to digital couldn’t occur until at least 85 percent of viewers in each TV market were able to watch digital programming.

By 2004, federal officials and broadcasters saw that they wouldn’t reach that minimum by the end of 2006. New laws in 2005 set Feb. 17, 2009, for the end of analog broadcasting and scheduled an auction of the recaptured spectrum, which took place earlier this year and raised $19 billion for the federal coffers.

Analog signals transmit pictures and sound in electronic pulses over continuously changing frequencies on the airwaves. They can carry only so much data at a time and can encounter interference.

A digital signal breaks an image and sound into binary code, with each bit of data represented by a series of zeros and ones, and transfers it to a receiver that reassembles the numbers into the original video and audio. It’s a more efficient way of transmitting. It can compress much more information and data into the same amount of spectrum that an analog signal uses. The bandwidth used for one analog channel on Cox’s cable system can carry 10 digital channels, said Leigh Woisard, spokeswoman for the cable company’s regional operations in Chesapeake.

Digital broadcasting is not the same as high definition. High definition is the most detailed, highest-quality version of digital picture and sound. It requires a special, high-definition receiver to translate the information-packed signal.

Viewers don’t have to upgrade to a high-defintion TV for the digital transition. Those without one will see digital pictures in standard definition.

Most TV viewers in Hampton Roads and elsewhere don’t have to do anything to go digital. If they subscribe to a paid-TV service through a cable or satellite company, they are ready.

Local cable providers Cox Communications and Charter Communications and satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network will convert the digital signal back to analog for customers who view on analog TVs.

For cable subscribers, that’s the case whether they run the cable from their wall into their TV or use a set-top box to receive programs. The cable operators will retain their analog lineup, which includes as many as 70 channels, for a minimum of three years, as the FCC requires, and could extend that past 2012.

In April, Verizon Communications removed the few remaining analog channels from its Fios TV lineup, offering the handful of customers with analog TVs free converter boxes to adapt the digital signal.

Analog TV owners who get over-the-air signals now with an antenna on the roof or on the set, like rabbit ears, must buy a converter box by Feb. 17 to stay tuned. The box will translate digital signals back to analog so they can watch programs.

As of mid-October, according to Nielsen’s research, 11 percent of U.S. households and about 14 percent of Hampton Roads homes were “partially unready” for the transition, meaning they owned at least one TV that could receive digital signals but at least one that still needed a converter box. In this region, about 6 percent of TV-viewing residents remain “completely unready,” with none of their sets able to receive digital signals, compared with about 8 percent nationwide.

The federal government allocated $1.34 billion to pay for about 33.5 million coupons for converter boxes. As of last week, 62 percent of U.S. households that rely on an antenna to receive broadcast TV had requested coupons, and they had redeemed about 14 million for boxes, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the division of the U.S. Commerce Department that’s overseeing the program.

Each household can apply for up to two coupons, each worth $40, until March 31. Most major electronics retailers carry converter boxes ranging from $40 to $70 and will accept the coupons, which expire 90 days after they are issued.

One coupon will cover only one converter box, and consumers will need a separate box for each analog TV. They can use a “splitter” to hook two TVs to one box, but the converter can’t show two channels at once, so they’d have to watch the same channel on both screens.

In most cases, viewers won’t need a new antenna for digital TV. If they live in a remote area or have a weak analog signal with an antenna now, they might need to upgrade to receive the digital signals, said Megan Pollock, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group for electronics manufacturers.

Pollock suggests an outdoor antenna that goes on a roof. Consumers don’t need to buy antennas marked “digital ready” or “HD ready,” she said.

TVs with digital tuners hit stores in 1998. Sets bought before that time probably are analog.

Starting in 2004, more manufacturers added digital technology to TVs. As of March 2007, federal law required that all new TVs sold in the United States include digital tuners, which wouldn’t need an outside converter box to capture the digital signal. Any TVs purchased since then probably are digital.

Consumers who bought their sets during the years in between probably would have paid more for digital technology. Those who still aren’t sure should find their product manual or go to the manufacturer’s Web site with the model number and look for indicators such as “digital” or the letters ATSC, which stands for Advanced Television Systems Committee, which developed the industry standards for digital TV.

Analog TV owners can buy a converter box at any time to make the move to digital TV. Once hooked up, they will see clearer images and enhanced sound.

“You should notice a dramatic difference in your picture,” said Linda Yun, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Broadcasters.

Consumers who own analog or digital TV sets hooked to cable or satellite service won’t see much difference in February, as those systems will deliver the signal the same way they do now. And those who own HDTV sets, using the proper equipment to capture those signals, already experience the highest-quality picture.

Most local broadcast stations’ digital signals will appear on their current analog channel numbers. Digital newcomers might see broadcasters “multi­casting,” or streaming several program options on one channel.

For analog TV users who don’t get converter boxes, the screen also will look different on Feb. 18.

“People who haven’t taken any action at all would see snow,” Yun said. “It would pretty much be a fuzzy picture.”


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