Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Bridging the Digital TV Gap

June 11, 2007

WARNING! Don't go rushing out to buy a new bargain-priced analog TV set. You will not be able to receive over-the-air television programming on it after February 2009. Analog TVs will then be technically obsolete. Only new digital sets will be able to pull signals from the airways.

Why? Because the FCC has mandated a new standard for TV broadcasting — digital, which is not compatible with existing analog standards. The switchover is an issue not just for consumers but for society as a whole, since it raises concerns of a widening digital divide, the environmentally safe disposal of old televisions, and even greater media-ownership concentration.

Compared with analog TV broadcasting, digital television signals offer a great improvement in clarity and resolution of images and far better sound quality, equal to the quality of a DVD or CD-ROM.

Another benefit of digital TV broadcasting over analog is that the digital signals can be compressed and used by a television station to add additional digital TV channels — up to four or perhaps even as many as six channels of television programming content using only 6 megahertz of bandwidth. But digital TV broadcasting is not compatible with current analog TVs. When color TV reception was introduced into the market, people did not have to rush out and buy an expensive new television set because color was compatible with black and white sets.

But once the transition to all digital TV standards is completed, analog TV sets become technically obsolete. They will not be able to receive an over-the-air digital TV signal or program. Consumers will have to either purchase a new digital TV, cable or satellite service, or a set-top box decoder, which will not provide the same quality reception as the other alternatives.

Many poor and low income working poor families may not be able to afford new digital TV sets or suitable substitutes, thus creating a new kind of digital divide in addition to the expanding gaps associated with Internet access. While approximately 85 percent of US households currently receive their television programming via cable TV or satellite TV services, the 15 percent of households that rely solely on over-the-air TV broadcasting will suffer disproportionately due to their poverty. They will likely be the same families who are now on the wrong side of existing digital divides.

Congress wants to help families by making coupons available that would cover the cost of one decoder per household. A better solution would be for Congress to provide subsidies in the form of means-tested "digital TV credits" to enable low-income families to purchase basic digital TV-video offerings from a multi-channel video service provider, whether that be a phone company or cable TV or satellite TV service. Congress could then make better and more efficient uses of the public airwaves by reallocating much of the television broadcasting spectrum for unlicensed broadband. This would help ensure universal access to high-speed broadband connectivity to the Internet and alternative forms of information, news, and entertainment.

Tens of millions of analog TV sets will end up on curbs on trash collection day, creating a toxic threat to our environment. Where and how will obsolete TV sets be disposed?

Of course, not all analog TV receivers will be dumped, because they will continue to be useful for watching standard DVDs and playing video games. But enough will likely be trashed so as to cause serious environmental concerns. To mitigate this problem, Congress could require a surcharge on the prices of new TVs to fund safe disposal of the old ones.

Current FCC regulations allow a single individual or firm to own as many as three TV stations and eight radio stations in the largest broadcast markets. Once the transition into digital is completed, a single firm like Clear Channel or General Electric could, by maximizing the number of radio and TV channels ultimately have as many as 58–100 broadcast voices in the same community by compressing their digital frequencies.

Just the possibility of having one voice dominate the public agenda of any community is sufficient reason for the FCC to disallow any further liberalization of ownership rules and continue to prohibit broadcaster-newspaper cross-ownership. The public interest demands no less.

Nolan Bowie, a guest columnist, is an adjunct lecturer in public policy and a senior fellow of the John F. Kennedy School of Government.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bowie, Nolan.“Bridging the Digital TV Gap.” The Boston Globe, June 11, 2007.