In 2009, millions of televisions around the country could go black when networks switch from analog to digital broadcasts. Although the move is federally mandated, debate is raging over whether the nation, specifically people who live in poor or rural areas, will be fully prepared for the switch.
On Feb. 12, 2009, television stations will begin broadcasting in digital signals instead of analog, freeing up valuable airwaves for both public safety announcements and wireless providers. Televisions that receive their programming via "rabbit ear" antennas, instead of cable or satellite service, will no longer be able to receive broadcast programming.
"This is a really exciting time," said Jenny Pareti, communications director at the Consumer Electronics Association. "[The switch] offers very high-quality digital programming that you're still able to get over the air. ... It also offers multicasting: You can cram more information into the same space."
Multicasting enables networks to have more than one broadcast running on a station. For example, viewers of Channel 5 could in theory also watch Channel 5.1, which might be devoted exclusively to weather, 5.2 which might be devoted to sports and so on.
"There are benefits to this," Pareti said. "Public safety is a huge benefit and ... the entertainment benefits as well."
But not everyone is so enthusiastic about the switch, specifically about the timeline.
About 98 percent of Americans have an analog television in their home, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. According to surveys done in the past year by the National Association of Broadcasters, 60 percent of Americans don't know about the change at all.
These issues are precisely the major problems that the government faces in the transfer.
"There's estimates that 20 million consumers [will] continue to receive their TV programming over the air," said Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research firm NPD. "Consumers who are most likely to be affected by this are likely to be in lower-income households and will tend to be in more rural areas, probably the only option for extended programming would be satellite service. There's no cable company serving them. ... They're probably not going to be as likely to invest a huge amount in their television."
Estimated to cost about $60, converter boxes will be available in some electronics outlets for people with analog televisions. The boxes will provide a way for analog television owners to watch digital signals.
Those rural consumers, many of whom might be unable to afford a replacement digital television or even a proposed converter box, are most vulnerable, Rubin said.
"The main concern would be for families, who would have to save for a while, and there's certainly many families in that situation," he said. "If they want to avoid having the TV turned off ... those are the families that they are most important that they be reached."
Rubin believes, especially for this group, that there will be problems on transition day, citing "the challenge of communicating changes in technology to such a broad population."
This week, lawmakers in both the House and Senate highlighted similar concerns, charging that the FCC is not doing enough to educate the public.
Some lawmakers claimed that the commission is instead leaving the lion's share of the work to consumer groups like the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, a group that this week launched its own $700 million awareness campaign. Circuit City also announced its own education campaign this week.
The government's plan relies on the "good graces of industry and the voluntary efforts of committed consumer and community groups to get the job done," Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass, said in a hearing Wednesday.
In comparison, the FCC is only spending $5 million to advertise a program publicizing its rebate program for an analog-to-digital converter. The FCC program allows households to sign up for two $40 rebates to offset the cost of a converter.
But spokespeople from both the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association disagreed with lawmaker charges of government apathy, saying that people will be educated in time and that every organization involved is doing enough.
"We've got a lot of work to do," said NAB spokeswoman Shermaze Ingram. "I absolutely think people are going to be aware [by the change date]. Our goal is to make sure no American television viewer loses access. ... This is the lifeblood of our industry. We're going to do everything possible."
According to Ingram, the NAB plans to fan out all over the country to cover those more vulnerable areas, including county fairs and local sporting events.
"There's no one single way to reach the American viewer," she said. "Anywhere there are people, we've got to try to be there."
Michael Gartenberg, the vice president and research director of Jupiter Research, says that the American public will be ready and doesn't expect to see any major fallout as a result.
"Change is inevitable. ... It's just a matter of education," he said, saying that the government is doing enough to inform the American public. "We're seeing lots of commercials. ... There's always going to be someone who has an issue. For the most part this should be a fairly smooth transition for most people.
"Tech changes. It does become obsolete," he continued. "People survived the transition from black and white to color, which was arguably a bigger change, and they'll survive it here as well."