The Digital Transition: What Happened to Analog Television

As part of the digital transition on June 12, 2009, all high-power analog TV broadcasting will cease, and the bandwidth used by those stations will be allocated to other purposes. While there's no shortage of cheerleaders for the new digital technology, there are also some detractors and even conspiracy theories about how this bandwidth will be used. Was the upheaval necessary? Will there be benefits? The answers can be a little complicated.

Begin with Bandwidth
Bands are specific wavelengths of radio waves, measured in Hertz (Hz). Like light waves, radiation waves and sound waves, there is a spectrum of bands, and some are more powerful than others.

For several decades, high-powered network TV affiliates have used channels, essentially small pieces of bandwidth, to broadcast television in the 700MHz band. This is one of the most powerful radio waves, capable of traveling great distances and penetrating concrete walls. For a network hoping to send out a strong signal, it's ideal.

In recent years, however, radio bands have gotten crowded. Everything from cordless phones to wireless networks to garage door openers uses radio transmitters, creating interference and interrupted communications. To address this problem, manufacturers and governments have worked together to allocate certain chunks of bandwidth to certain devices, such as the 1.9GHz band reserved for cordless phones.

At the same time, television began moving toward digital HDTV broadcasting. Not all digital TV is high-definition, but all HDTV is digital, so networks that want to show HDTV programs must send out digital signals. This transition provided an opportunity for the Federal Communications Commission to reallocate TV bandwidth for the new digital transmitters and free up the 700MHz band.

The Challenge for Consumers
Digital television is a vast improvement over the old analog system. Digital TV signals are always clear, as long as they're strong enough. There's no ghosting, wavy lines, snow or audio distortion. To receive these signals, you need a digital ATSC tuner. Since most TVs sold in the United States before 2007 lack these tuners, consumers have some confusing choices:

  1. Get a new TV. All TVs manufactured for sale in the United States after March 31, 2007 have an ATSC tuner. They'll work with a simple antenna.
  2. Get cable or satellite. The converter boxes used by satellite and cable companies will convert digital signals to analog for older televisions that only have analog NTSC tuners. The downside here is the monthly bill.
  3. Get a converter box. Separate converter boxes are available that convert the digital signal to an analog one for older TVs. Prices range from $20 to $75 for these boxes, but there's no monthly fee to use them, so it's a one-time expense.

Keep in mind that nobody is trying to deny consumers' access to broadcast television. In fact, the government offered a $40 coupon program to help people buy converter boxes. Television is part of the Emergency Broadcast System, which is used to inform people in the event of a natural disaster or a national emergency. Allowing people to tune in is a public safety priority.

What Happened to the Bandwidth?
The FCC regained the right to allocate the bandwidth in the 700MHz band in 2007. A portion of it has been set aside to build the first-ever nationwide public safety network, which will use wireless communications to link radios and computers for police, firefighters and medical personnel. The need for such a network was obvious in the wake of the September 11 attacks, when hundreds of firefighters and police died in the collapse of the World Trade Center because radio signals couldn't penetrate the concrete in the buildings. Plans call for the network, which has yet to be built, to be operational by 2018.

In a highly controversial decision, the FCC allowed the remaining bandwidth to be auctioned off to private companies, with Verizon and AT&T winning most of the bandwidth. Critics complain that public airwaves shouldn't be in the hands of private businesses, and that their exclusive ownership will stifle competition and innovation. Proponents of the decision say that well-funded corporations are needed to build the infrastructure, which could create a new broadband network for wireless distribution of Web content and digital media files.

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