Friday, June 03, 2005

Pulling the Analog Plug

An article titled "The end of analog TV" recently appeared on the MSNBC website. "Depending on the outcome of discussions in Congress," it starts off, "television as we know it may end at exactly midnight Dec. 31, 2006."

The article is talking about the date the plug may be pulled on the current television standard, which is analog, in favor of all-digital TV.

HDTV is digital TV and can't be carried in analog form. You can't cram enough pixels into the channel space unless you use digital compression techniques such as MPEG-2.

So Congress and the Federal Communications Commission told broadcasters a decade ago that they could use new, previously unallocated channels to send out digital signals over the air — and that at a date uncertain, far off in the future, they'd have to shut down their analog broadcasts and return those channels to Uncle Sam. When a certain fairly hefty percentage of households were digital-ready — but not before the end of 2006 — the old analog channels would go dark.

We can now begin to descry Dec. 31, 2006, on the far horizon ... and it looks as if the requisite 85 percent of homes will not have digital TVs.

"Over 1400 broadcasters now transmit in digital as well as analog," the article says, "reaching 99 percent of the U.S. television market. So the problem is not the readiness of broadcasters. No, despite the recent upsurge in sales of plasma flat panels and other wow-factor digital TVs, not enough of them have invaded enough living rooms. The article says that "at present there are only about 30 million televisions with digital tuners in American homes, out of a total of several hundred million installed sets."

Of course, neither of my hi-tech screens have onboard digital tuners.

In addition to my Samsung 61" DLP rear-projector, which has true 1,280 x 720p resolution, I have a 32" Hitachi plasma monitor. The Hitachi uses 1,024 pixels across the 16:9 screen and 852 vertically. Its screen pixels are wider-than-square, a common situation with plasma sets. When it receives a 720p or 1080i signal with square pixels, its internal digital circuitry maps them to the less-horizontally-dense, non-square screen pixels.

At any rate, I can't decode over-the-air (OTA) digital transmissions on either digital TV ... but so what? I have digital-cable-cum-HDTV, and I also have DirecTV satellite service, which is likewise digital (but not hi-def, since I have yet to invest in the necessary technology upgrade).

So, who needs an OTA digi-tuner? I sure don't — but see below for who else might.

The MSNBC article, under the assumption that the New Year's Eve '06 85-percent deadline is going to be missed, goes on:

Congress needs to do something ... . For starters, there’s the remarkable fact that Americans are still buying over 20 million analog sets each year, all of which could be obsolete rather quickly. If Detroit was selling cars that used a type of gasoline that would soon no longer be available, consumers would expect to be informed. Thus analog sets clearly need some kind of warning label ... .

Those who are gung ho for digital television want Congress to now make 12/31/06 a firm "date certain" upon which the analog plug will definitely be pulled.

If that happened, folks who didn't buy a TV with an onboard digital tuner — and weren't interested in relying on cable or satellite — would presumably have to spend perhaps $100 on a "converter box." But, says the article,

85 percent of Americans now get all their television from cable or satellite providers, so for the most part the change-over won’t affect them.

Admittedly, some of those households have second or third TV sets that are OTA-dependent and would need converter boxes. But the real problem is

... the 15 million or so U.S. households whose only television service comes over the air. For these people, predominately lower-income and disproportionately black and Hispanic, the cut-off will be bad news indeed.

The citizens who can least afford to plunk down a C-note for a converter are the ones that would be left high and dry.

Uncle Sam is making noises about possibly subsidizing low-income households' converters to the tune of a billion (or several billion) dollars, with the anticipated cost declining as converter box prices drop over the next several years, if the transition to digital is delayed. This is not empty largesse, since the current analog channels, once they revert to Uncle Sam, will be auctioned off for big money. Anything which hastens that influx of dollars will help offset the huge deficits expected over the next unpty-ump years.

(Actually, I gather the scenario is a little more complex than that. The digital broadcast streams now occupying UHF TV channels 52 – 69 would, I believe, move to the channels currently in use for analog broadcasting. Then the channels in the 52 - 69 range would be sold off at auction by the federal government.)

Also urging a quick transition to all-digital TV are the consumer electronics manufacturers, who expect to reap a bonanza. Too, Intel and other computer-industry giants want analog TV to go bye-bye so they can use the freed up channel space for high-speed wireless Internet services. So there are a lot of heavy hitters behind the transition.

So, the article says,

Rep. Joe Barton [R-TX], chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, .. is expected to introduce a cut-off bill sometime in the next few months.

Maybe, for all I know, he's already done so, since the MSNBC article was first published. Barton's ally in the Senate is John McCain (R-AZ), who also wants a "date certain" to be set sooner rather than later. But it's not clear that either legislator is wedded to 12/31/06 specifically as the cut-off date. Meanwhile, other movers and shakers seem to prefer "a more gradual, region-by-region approach that might even extend to the end of this decade."

Analyzing this, I'd say there are two major impediments to a rapid analog cut-off. One, the effects on low-income households, particularly if (as the Bush administration wants) there are no subsidies. Two, the effects on Mr. and Mrs. Average Homeowner, who will (however unjustifiably) feel put upon, dazed and confused, and angry at "those politicians in Washington."

My feeling is that settling this politically will take up all the time that exists between now and 12/31/06, and then some. But at some point down the road, the analog plug will be pulled. It may happen all at once, or it may happen region-by-region or city-by-city, but it will happen ... and lots of people will be panic-stricken. Ain't that just like a human: to pay no attention at all to that locomotive that's heading down the track for you, until it squashes you and then you complain at the top of your voice.

As for the subsidies for the poorer among us, I'm all for them. Since the tab Uncle Sam picks up will shrink, the further off the cut-off date is set, I suspect this is another reason to believe in a cut-off date in the 2008 or 2009 range rather than in 2006 or 2007.


P.S. There is a follow-up to the MSNBC article here, in which the writer points out that non-HD digital sets, much less pricey than the HD ones, are coming soon:

Last week I had a chance to see one of the first non-HD digital televisions at a home entertainment show in New York. RCA showed its 27-inch 27V514T set displaying a digital over-the-air broadcast next to a set receiving the same channel in analog form, through the same antenna. The digital image was significantly better ... .

As a matter of fact, the original article states that by 2007, all new TV sets sold in the U.S. must have digital tuners. This is "under current law." Or is it actually an FCC rule which mandates it? Never mind; the point is that I doubt Congress will pull the plug on analog broadcasts until that law (or rule) has had a chance to whittle down the number of tunerless households.

Again, it looks to me as if 2008 or 2009 is a more likely time frame for the demise of the last over-the-air TV "ghost." (Digital transmissions aren't burdened with those faint double images, once so familiar, which plagued analog broadcasts as they bounced off buildings and trees en route to the receiving antenna.)