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Will a new law make your TV obsolete?

The United States government is requiring TV stations to cease broadcasting analog channels. April 7th, 2009 is the current date the FCC is requiring U.S. stations to broadcast using digital signals instead of existing analog signals. With a conversion date slightly over three years from now and little publicity on the topic, what is an American consumer to do?

First, let’s take a look at what is driving these changes and then we’ll look at what options American consumers have regarding their home television sets.

Why convert to digital TV?

There are three main factors driving the industry change from analog signals to digital. Standardized digital conversion will create a common and effective way for TV broadcasters to encrypt their content and protect against piracy. Digital content not only provides better content for viewers, but perfect reproduction for content piracy. No longer is there a “copy of a copy” effect. Every reproduction of digital content is as clear as the original. Existing laws and standards don’t allow broadcasters to protect their content because they have to provide analog versions. The conversion to digital broadcast will allow encryption to be employed.

The second reason for digital TV conversion is to raise money through the sale of frequency spectrums. VHF (Very high frequency) channels are currently used for TV stations 2-13, but that frequency range is also used for FM radio, navigation systems, aircraft communications and two-way radios for police, taxis and marine communications. UHF (Ultra high frequency) channels are used for all other TV stations that are not digital. This frequency range is also used currently for cell phones, cordless phones, wireless networking, ham radio and other licensed two-way communications (GMRS, FRS) and microwave ovens.

During the mid 90’s the FCC auctioned PCS spectrum frequencies, which current digital cellular phones operate on and generated over .7 billion in revenue for the A and B blocks alone. When TV stations convert to digital frequencies, the FCC plans to auction the newly available spectrum to the highest bidder. Revenues from this auction are expected to exceed billion with billion legislated to pay down the federal deficit.

The final reason driving the conversion to digital broadcast comes from providers themselves. In addition to being able to protect their content, TV stations will be able to provide better content. Digital TV will be broadcast in higher resolution, meaning your picture will be clearer and sharper. The aspect ratio, the way the picture is displayed, will be different…more like the way movies in theaters are displayed. Think rectangle instead of square. Digital TV will also supply Dolby digital surround sound. Most importantly though is the ability to broadcast more than one channel at a time. For instance, HBO currently broadcasts eight channels on digital cable and digital satellite. Subscribers who have analog cable only receive one HBO channel.

Is a new TV required?

So what does all this information mean to American TV watchers? First of all, you won’t necessarily have to buy a new TV. If you’re one of the less than 30% who still watches TV using only an antenna, your TV will go blank on April 7th, 2009, but you’ll be able to fix that situation using a digital converter box instead of buying a new TV. The consumer electronics industry is hoping the price point of that device will be less than . For the remaining 70% of American TV watchers who subscribe to cable or digital satellite services, your current set top box will act as the converter for your TV. However, some features that only a new digital TV will have is the ability to display the full digital resolution and the wide screen aspect ratio.

Another benefit to a digital TV is you won’t need a separate cable or satellite receiver. Digital TVs have those tuners built in, but you may need a decoder card to receive subscription based programming. Cable and digital satellite providers plan on providing video on demand using these cards instead of a set top box.

Digital TVs are already on the market and you may have one without even knowing it! All large screen TVs, 36” and above, were required to be digital ready July 1, 2005. Intermediate sized TVs, 25” to 36” are scheduled to be digital ready by July 1, 2006 and all TVs above 13” should be digital ready by March 1, 2007. This should be in plenty of time to meet the 2009 legislation. Manufacturers are hoping the deadline will be moved up as are certain members of Congress like Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Will consumers know the difference?

The adoption of HDTV is a good measure of how consumers will respond to digital TV. Purchases of HDTVs have been strong, especially with prices dropping, but there is still a lot of confusion between the different types of TVs available and the required HDTV services. A December survey by Forrester Research showed that while 16 million Americans have purchased HDTV sets, less than half of them have registered for services that will allow them to view it.

Some HDTV programming is provided “in the clear,” but cable or satellite customers need to have a special set top box or decoder (CableCard) to view programming in HD. The biggest reason consumers gave for not obtaining the proper programming options to receive HDTV was they felt the picture quality was already improved just by the purchase of the HDTV set.

Cable and satellite providers will be providing consumer education over the coming year to educate them about the additional requirements for viewing HDTV. Hopefully, this education programming will help raise awareness for the Digital TV conversion of 2009 as well.

Digital television – the bottom line.

The 2009 digital TV conversion should benefit consumers in ways they can’t even imagine. It won’t require everybody to purchase a new television set. Manufacturers and retailers will continue to provide analog TVs as the law allows over the next 24 months and new VCRs and DVD players will be made with both analog and digital tuners. TV content providers will be able to provide better and more interactive content for viewers because of a defined digital TV standard. And other consumer electronic communication devices will be made better because of expanded frequency availability for things like cordless phones, cell phones and walkie-talkies of all varieties. Digital TV should be a very good thing indeed.

About the Author: Max Stein, Salt Lake City, UT, USA Max Stein is a freelance writer who writes about a variety of contemporary topics.

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