Pop quiz: Did you know that you may lose your television service in less than ten months?

static-tv.jpg By Martin Bosworth

Is the answer to the above question “No?”

Well, that’s part of the problem–millions of Americans are in the same boat, and they are equally unaware of the situation

The basic gist is this: On February 17, 2009, “over-the-air” (OTA) broadcast television stations that use analog signals (which you pick up through the familiar “rabbit-ear” antennae) are switching to digital signals, which means that unless you have a strong enough antenna set and a special set-top converter box, your television will not be able to pick up the new signals. The government’s official DTV site gives a concise description of the whole event.

Cable and satellite subscribers will also be unaffected, because cable systems work with analog signals and satellite programming requires its own tuner. This may lead you to think “Well, that solves the problem right there–who still watches regular broadcast TV?” The answer is a lot of people–and studies have shown that anywhere from 9 million to 23 million people may lose their service altogether or end up with spotty service at best. Elderly, low-income, and Latino households, all of which are statistically reliant on OTA broadcast television, will be the hardest hit, and both major urban centers and rural communities are at risk. It’s easy to be flip about this and say “Well, television sucks now anyway,” but for a sizeable portion of American households, TV is still the primary–and sometimes only–way they can get vital news and information. Not everyone has access to the Internet, after all, and not everyone can afford a fast connection any more than they can afford cable or satellite television–or buy a fancy new digital television, for that matter.

The FCC and the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), the technology arm of the Commerce Department, are the agencies taking the lead on this issue, doing everything from launching a program to publicize free $40 vouchers for the purchase of set-top converter boxes, to levying fines on retailers who have been selling analog televisions without warning consumers that they won’t work without a converter box. But this is the Bush administration, remember, so you can count on the fact that all of their efforts are coming up short:

A Democratic congressman on Thursday called into question the government’s ability to handle the growing needs of the digital television transition, a suggestion that was quickly dismissed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). “I have a sense that the current converter box subsidy is not adequate funding,” Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, said here during the Consumer Electronics Association ‘s (CEA) annual Washington forum. The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act allocated $990 million for a converter box subsidy program, of which $100 million can be used for administrative purposes. Congress also capped DTV education and outreach spending at $5 million.

Boucher’s sentiment was echoed by, of all people, Senator Ted “Series Of Tubes” Stevens during a Commerce Committee hearing on the DTV transition last week. I never thought I’d agree with Stevens on anything, but he was dead right when he said that FCC chair Kevin Martin was wasting the agency’s time on pet projects:

“The digital transition must be the FCC’s number one priority this year. No other issue before the FCC has the same critical countdown as this transition,” said Senator Stevens. “It is crucial that government officials, industry, and consumer advocacy groups increase their outreach efforts to senior citizens and rural Americans.”

The kicker here is that, once again, the Bush regime’s toadies are simply moving down the goalposts to ensure that the problem will not be theirs to handle. Martin, legendary friend to telecom interests that he is, is guaranteed to be gone even if McCain wins the election, possibly embarking on a run for Senate or governor of North Carolina. Meredith Baker, current acting head of the NTIA, is just that–she’s literally keeping the seat warm until the clock runs out on the Bush administration and she can run to a cushy job in the private sector. This will, in all likelihood, be yet another millstone hung around the neck of a (likely) Democratic president and an (even more likely) Democratic Congress, just like every other tragedy of the last eight years.

It’s worth noting that not only are the fines levied on retailers a relative pittance (and can be appealed), but as Ars Technica reported in February, said retailers are also ridiculously underinformed about the specifics of the transition, and may be using the confusion and FUD to sell consumers expensive equipment they may not even need. But this is, again, a hallmark of the Bush regime’s attitude–by letting the industries take the lead, they have sown a potentially chaotic cascade of problems that may erupt next February when millions of televisions go off the air and angry citizens start calling their Congressmen.

Congress needs to authorize more money and much more sweeping rules on broad education and increased awareness of the transfer. It also needs to bypass the Bush administration and work directly with industries, retailers, and consumer groups on the state and local levels to get the word out about the transition. In the long run, the DTV transition problems are probably not as immediate as issues such as Iraq, global heating, or the usage of torture, but they are real problems that will affect millions of Americans if more isn’t done about them.

And just like they’ve done with every other problem put in front of them, the Bush regime’s flunkies are ducking the issue and leaving consumers in the dark and deafened by static–both metaphorically, and in less than ten months, maybe literally as well.

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  2. One thing none of these stories discuss is that many folks are currently watching a poor or marginal analog signal. Snow and a few ghosts are annoying, but at least you can watch. With digital it’s all or nothing. There will be no snow or ghosts on digital broadcasts. Instead you will get nothing – or blocks of pixeliated garbage and no sound. Even my cable system is having trouble giving me reliable digital service since they can’t receive the over the air digital signals clearly enough.

    I expect there will be lots of complaining once the switch is made.