Monday, February 04, 2008

Why are we changing a perfectly good TV system?

Much has been written and reported about the transition from an analog to a digital TV system in the United States and in other countries around the word. This column has discussed the features of new TV sets and the various “flavors” of technologies and services that you can use to receive these new digital signals. The other day I was asked some very simple questions which have not received much attention in any of these reports, including mine. Why are we doing this? Why are we spending billions of dollars to rebuild, from the ground up, a national TV system that seems to work perfectly well?

Well, there is not one answer but several. Basically it comes down to money, available resources, and the quality of the TV product. I’ll take them one by one.

In the mid to late 1990s Congress was looking for every way possible to increase federal revenues in order to wipe out, or at least reduce, the national deficit. This came at the same time more and more wireless technology companies were exhausting their allocated radio frequencies. A quick calculation showed that current analog TV was using a disproportionate amount of the radio spectrum and that a conversion to digital would free up some of this very valuable space. Since conversion to digital was inevitable, setting a time table was a “no brainer.”

A bit of science here. All assigned radio frequencies (channels) within the radio spectrum(AM, FM, shortwave, emergency radio, cell phones, garage door openers, etc.) are not equal. Some frequencies are more valuable than others. It so happens that the frequencies that we use for analog TV are among the most desirable, since these signals can penetrate buildings, travel long distances, etc. So these TV channels could bring billions in revenue to federal coffers. In fact, the first two auctions took place in mid-January with bids totaling some $2.8 billion. The total revenue is pegged at between $10 and $12 billion.

I am sure you have read about the continuing problems that our police and fire departments often have establishing reliable communications in the event of a major disaster. This was brought home all too clearly in the aftermath of 911. The problem again was that available channels were just plain filled up. Part of the channels that will be made available in February 2009 when analog TV ceases to occupy the airwaves will be dedicated for use by homeland security and other first responders. This should greatly expand communications between and among these emergency workers.

The third reason for moving to digital is to take advantage of all the improvements digital affords. High Definition pictures and sound, multiple channels that occupy less space in the spectrum and easier recording and storage of programs are only a few of the benefits. None of these were practical within the old analog constraints.

For sure this conversion has and continues to be expensive. CET has spent millions to convert our studios and transmitter to digital as have all the other stations in Cincinnati and around the country. For the consumer, new TVs or set top converters will need to be purchased if you are not a cable or satellite subscriber. Is it all worth it? In my opinion, yes it is. Using wisely the radio spectrum is no less important than conserving any finite natural resource. For the consumer, the TV product, at least as it relates to the quality of the pictures and sound will be greatly enhanced. Time will tell if the stuff is worth watching …but that’s another column.

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