Behind the placid pictures, a made-for-TV storm is looming.
Since the first days of television, the method of beaming pictures into our living rooms hasn’t changed much. But on Feb. 17, 2009, television stations across the country will hit the off button on this time-tested technology and switch to new transmitters, sending computerized digital signals through the air.
When the change comes, the estimated 30 million televisions that use traditional antennas will go to snow without a digital converter box. The cable industry is spending $200 million to educate customers, and Congress has set aside $1.5 billion to help subsidize the purchase of converter boxes.
Still, half of American viewers don’t know the storm is coming, according to a poll conducted last month by the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing. For the 1 in 5 American households that still use rabbit ears or antennas on the roof, “the day of reckoning is coming,” said Barry Umansky, a communications professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
Not enough spectrum for all those signals
The switch to all-digital television, and a similar switch in the wireless communications industry, is partly a repercussion of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when police and fire communications channels were clogged by too much traffic.
The Federal Communications Commission first ordered the eventual transition in 1996, but Congress didn’t set a deadline until the 9/11 Commission reported that first-responder systems needed a major upgrade.
The problem, said Umansky, a longtime broadcast industry lawyer, is that “America’s seemingly wide-open skies are chock full of radio signals, and there just aren’t enough frequencies for all the people who need to use them.”
By taking back the analog frequencies, the government will “allow the nation’s airwaves to be used by firefighters, police and other first responders to help the nation when there might be a natural or manmade disaster,” said Todd Sedmak, communications director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Cell phones, alarms, navigation systems also affected
Companies will now have to bid for digital spectrum, which can carry more information more efficiently, allowing them to transmit crystal-clear, high-definition signals, and more of them. The auctions will mean a windfall for the government — and a train wreck for consumers, said Umansky and other experts.
Televisions aren’t the only technology to use analog signals. Some cell phone customers still use analog service, which carriers won’t have to provide under a similar ruling that takes effect Jan. 1. So do about 1 million home and business alarm systems across the country, many of which are small, local operations for which the switch to digital could be prohibitively expensive.
“So you could have your alarm going off and the signal will go nowhere — basically fall on deaf ears,” said Andrew Stevens of Tele-Plus, a telecommunications and security company in Hagerstown, Md.
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Likewise, General Motors’ OnStar automotive assistance service will go silent in all models that can’t be upgraded to receive digital signals. That’s every model made before 2002, as well as some made from 2002 to 2004.
“I have a car, I have a blue button, and jeez, it’s not going to work,” said Barbara Montsvil of Morton Grove, Ill. “All right, now what do I do? Send out a flare?”
In a statement, OnStar said: “Like our analog customers, we would have preferred that the cellular industry continue to support analog technology beyond 2008.”
The danger inside your old set
Beyond the hassle for consumers is the potential flood of poisons that could be unleashed on the environment.
High-definition digital televisions were one of the most popular Christmas gifts this year. In many homes, they replaced older traditional sets. Getting rid of them is a problem, because analog TVs contain lead, a highly hazardous material used to protect viewers from X-rays generated while the tube is in operation.
“Electronics go in the landfill,” said Susan Carmichael, director of the Clean City Commission in Montgomery, Ala. “Where else are you going to put them?”
But lead that makes it into a landfill can contaminate soil and groundwater. And there’s a lot of lead in a traditional TV set — on average, 4 pounds of it, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It’s not easy at all,” said Francisco Torres of Resale Resource, a recycler in Austin, Texas. “I mean, you’ve got the glass compounds, the lead, all this stuff has to be done in an environmentally safe way.”
Too many TVs; too little time
At the Terrace Heights landfill in Yakima, Wash., officials say they want to keep lead out of the wastewater, but they don’t have the resources to sort out the hazardous items.
“We get about 720 tons of garbage every day at this landfill,” said Mikal Heintz, the landfill’s coordinator. “Through the Christmas holiday, it’s even more, and we don’t have the manpower to go through everything.”
The hazard poses especially tough problems for charities that get inundated with donated TVs around the holidays.
"After February 17, ’09, there’s not going to be a signal, and you are going to have a converter box or a cable in order to use the television,” said Jerry Davis, president and chief executive of Goodwill Industries of Central Texas.
“Everybody is going to be dumping them as we get closer and closer,” Davis said. But “every pound we get of television costs us 17 cents to recycle.”
Goodwill is still taking working TVs, Davis said, but it is posting notes telling customers of the coming switch.
And while services are springing up to safely recycle old TVs and their waste materials, they come at a price. Fees can range from $3 to $35 per set, plus a transportation charge for pickup service.
Rich Van Wyk is a correspondent for NBC affiliate WTHR of Indianapolis. Alex Johnson is a reporter for msnbc.com. NBC’s Brooke Hart and NBC affiliates KNDO of Yakima, Wash.; KSHB of Kansas City, Mo.; WHAG of Hagerstown, Md.; WMAQ of Chicago; WSFA of Montgomery, Ala.; and WVIR of Charlottesville, Va., contributed to this report.