Mysteries explained: What's so great about DTV, and why do I have to switch?

On June 12, 2009, television stations across the nation ended the era of analog broadcasting and begin broadcasting in digital only. This means changes for over-the-air TV viewers, who will gain access to more channels and clearer signals, but who may also need new equipment to continue watching free TV.

Digital TV is a technological leap forward. Benefits include the possibility for more available channels in every local community, clearer picture quality, cable-style onscreen program guides, and configurable closed captioning.

The downsides are mostly short-term, and have to do with the way the government and local broadcasters have prepared for the transition. While the transition has been planned for over a year, many people remain unprepared for the switch. In particular, many over-the-air viewers may not have acquired and tested their DTV converter boxes before the switch, and thus may lose access to local TV news, weather and public safety announcements for a period of time.

In addition, the actual effects of the transition on a particular household's TV reception are difficult to predict, since they depend on the particular DTV receiver and antenna, as well as the characteristics of the house or building, the surrounding geography, and of course the distance from the station's transmitter. The city of Wilmington, North Carolina made the switch to digital TV back in September as a test case, and the state of Hawaii switched on Jan. 15, providing some anecdotal information about the range of experiences people will have with the transition.

The government provided for a coupon program (described elsewhere on this site) to help consumers manage the cost of buying new DTV converter boxes for their televisions. Unfortunately, in early January, this program has run out of funds. Congressional efforts to reinstate funding for coupons are currently uncertain.

From a policy perspective, the federal government's plans for the TV transition have so far missed an opportunity to articulate strong public interest requirements for new digital channels, or to use the increased channel capacity to allow more local voices onto the airwaves.

In the long run, despite the wrinkles, the transition to DTV will provide more channels and features, for free, to over-the-air TV consumers. Consumers will also benefit indirectly from new uses of the frequencies vacated by analog tv channels; read about that here.


DTV transition (Wikipedia)

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