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F. Birchman / MSNBC.com
By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 4/24/2005 5:16:55 PM ET 2005-04-24T21:16:55

Depending on the outcome of discussions in Congress, television as we know it may end at exactly midnight Dec. 31, 2006.

That’s the date Congress targeted, a decade ago, for the end of analog television broadcasting and a full cutover to a digital format. If enforced, that means that overnight, somewhere around 70 million television sets now connected to rabbit ears or roof-top antennas will suddenly and forever go blank, unless their owners purchase a special converter box.  Back when the legislation was written, New Year’s Eve 2006 probably looked as safely distant as the dark side of the moon. But now that date is right around the corner and Congress and the FCC are struggling mightily to figure out what to do.

Congress, however, left itself a loophole in the 1996 legislation, and could actually let the cut-off date slide by. But powerful lobbyists now are pressing legislators to set a “date certain” for the analog lights-out. The debate over when to throw the switch is a strange brew of big money, high technology, homeland security and a single, unanswerable question: just how angry are the couch potatoes going to be?  It’s also a textbook example of why the future almost never happens as fast as technologists promise. 

It all started back in the Eighties, when the Japanese shocked American consumer electronics companies with trade-show displays of high definition television sets that delivered razor-sharp images and stunning audio.  Everyone from Congress to the Wall Street Journal raised outcries: America’s favorite technology was being taken over by the then-fearsome Japan Inc.  As a result, a group of American companies formed the “Grand Alliance” that leapfrogged the Japanese technology by inventing digital HDTV. Thus, early on, HDTV invoked not just pretty pictures, but national pride and economic development. (Ironically, Zenith, the most all-American commercial participant in the Grand Alliance, is now South Korean-owned.)

One drawback to the U.S. version of HDTV was that to make it work, all broadcast television (not just high-definition) would have to convert to digital, meaning that every American television set manufactured since 1946 would be rendered obsolete. To ease the transition, Congress generously gave all television broadcasters additional channel space so that they could keep broadcasting their analog signals while they installed and launched their digital channels. The deal was that they would give up their old channels when the transition was done. That part worked: Over 1400 broadcasters now transmit in digital as well as analog, reaching 99 percent of the U.S. television market. 

During the same period consumers were supposed to buy digital television receivers. That part didn't work.

The only digital televisions on sale thus far have been big-screen, high-priced HDTV sets.  Not until next year will manufacturers start selling smaller-screen sets with digital tuners — and under current law all sets won’t have digital tuners until 2007. Thus at present there are only about 30 million televisions with digital tuners in American homes, out of a total of several hundred million installed sets.

That’s where the Congressional loophole comes in.  Congress can ignore the end-of-2006 cut-off if fewer than 85 percent of households have digital television sets.

But Congress needs to do something nonetheless. For starters, there’s the remarkable fact that Americans are still buying over 20 million analog sets each year, all of which could be obsolete rather quickly. If Detroit was selling cars that used a type of gasoline that would soon no longer be available, consumers would expect to be informed. Thus analog sets clearly need some kind of warning label, and proponents of a “date certain” say this will make the labels far more meaningful: i.e., “This television will no longer receive over-the-air signals after December 31, 2006.”

The really big question: What will happen to all those old-fashioned television sets we’re still buying when the analog transmitters go off the air? To continue to receive free broadcast television via antenna, you’ll have to buy a digital converter box; cost estimates range from $100 or so in 2006 down to $50 by 2008. (Those converters won’t turn older sets into fancy high-definition sets; they will only restore conventional TV service, in digital format. The picture quality will be fairly comparable to today’s analog version, although there will be some improvements for people who use antennas — no “snow” or “ghosting.” On the other hand, when digital signals are weak, there is often no picture at all.)

Many analog television owners won’t need a converter: 85 percent of Americans now get all their television from cable or satellite providers, so for the most part the change-over won’t affect them.  (A lot of those households, however, also have second and third sets in basements or bedrooms that do rely on over-the-air signals.) The real problem is the 15 million or so U.S. households whose only television service comes over the air. For these people, predominately lower-income and disproportionately black and Hispanic, the cut-off will be bad news indeed.

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Most discussions in Washington contemplate some sort of free or subsidized converters for low-income households, paid for by the government, perhaps with the help of broadcasters or consumer electronics manufacturers. Estimates for the costs of that subsidy range from under one to several billion dollars — the cost declining as the cut-off date is moved further into the future. Proponents argue that the cost of the subsidy is small compared to the economic benefits, although last year the Bush administration indicated it was not in favor of subsidized converters.

If consumers aren’t ready for the transition, and the government is going to get stuck buying a billion dollars of converter boxes, why not put it off indefinitely?  The broadcasters don’t seem to be in any hurry: They have both their old analog channels plus the opportunity to experiment with digital broadcasting. But consumer electronics manufacturers are pushing Congress hard. Switching everyone to digital TV could be the biggest bonanza the industry has seen since the mid-Eighties, when the advent of audio CDs fuelled an enormous upgrade market. 

In addition, both Silicon Valley and your local police force are lobbying for an early analog cut-off.  The reason is simple: when the cut-off happens, TV channels 52 – 69 will no longer be needed, freeing up broadcasting spectrum for other purposes.  Public safety workers have been promised four of these channels — a commitment even more pressing in the wake of the 9/11 Commission’s finding that the nation’s first responder communications systems need a major upgrade.  And companies like Intel and Cisco want to use other parts of the newly freed spectrum for very powerful wireless broadband networks that could offer seamless high-speed Internet service virtually everywhere in the U.S.  Other advanced uses will materialize. Already, cell phone pioneer Qualcomm plans to use some of the spectrum to build an advanced video network for mobile phones. And finally, there’s a bonus for the U.S. Treasury as well—much of the new spectrum will be auctioned off to the highest bidders, raising billions of dollars.

So what’s Congress going to do?  The next move belongs to Rep. Joe Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, who is expected to introduce a cut-off bill sometime in the next few months.  Barton, R-Texas, is a firm proponent of setting a “date certain,” though he is not necessarily wed to the December 31, 2006 deadline. In public comments , however, he has made it clear that he favors a date sooner rather than later — as do other key congressional figures, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who won an award for “Best DTV Government Leadership” last month from a major consumer electronics group.  Possible legislative scenarios range from an aggressive decision to enforce the 2006 cut-off to a more gradual, region-by-region approach that might even extend to the end of this decade.  The latter would severely frustrate technologists, but provide plenty of time to ease consumers into the new world.

How will it turn out? At the moment no one really knows. Back in 1996, when the digital television transition was first proposed, media analyst Gary Arlen observed wryly that “it will be easier for Congress to take away Social Security than television sets.”  Ironically, now Congress is worrying about both things at the same time — and neither problem seems to have a painless solution.

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