Preparing for a Smooth Digital Television Transition
By Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
On Thursday, February 7, an AMBER Alert message flashed across TVs all over Texas, as the Emergency Alert System (EAS) broadcast information on a 5-year old Austin boy who had been just been abducted. Thanks to the swift action of authorities and implementation of the AMBER Alert system, the boy was safely recovered thirteen hours later and returned to his family. For more than 40 years, variations of the EAS have worked in concert with radio and television broadcasters, cable companies, and satellite providers to inform the public of emergencies. Today, it warns citizens about severe weather hazards, helps mobilize communities to search for and recover kidnapped children, and enables the government to immediately address the nation in the event of a national emergency.
One year from now, on February 17, 2009, the nation’s full power broadcasters (large TV stations covering multiple cities) will switch from an analog to a digital broadcasting format. This change will dramatically enhance the clarity of television broadcasts, resulting in less interference, sharper pictures, and better sound. The efficiency of digital broadcasting may also allow for new and diverse television programming.
Most importantly, transitioning to digital television, or D-TV, will free up the frequencies on which data is transmitted to the public, otherwise known as broadcast spectrum, for important safety activities that will increase the nation’s ability to respond to terrorist attacks and national disasters. Digital broadcasting will continue to transmit emergency messages, like AMBER Alerts, but some of the spectrum space will be reallocated to implement a nationwide public safety communication system to support police, fire departments, rescue squads and other first responders. The challenges facing first responders on September 11, 2001, and during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita illustrate how badly this capability is needed, and the 9/11 Commission recommended a nationwide public safety system in its final report to Congress.
So what does the D-TV transition mean for you?
Nationwide, about 13 percent of homes have older television sets and receive over-the-air programming using antenna or “rabbit ears.” In Texas , this number is much higher, with more than 20 percent needing to take steps to prepare for the transition. These households will need converter boxes to change digital broadcasts into an analog format so their TVs can display public safety and emergency broadcasts. If a television is only equipped with an analog tuner, it will work as it does now until analog broadcasting stops at midnight on February 17, 2009. After the transition, consumers can keep their older, analog TVs if they obtain a set-top converter box.
A converter box will translate the digital broadcast signal into an analog signal that an older TV will display. Each television that is neither outfitted with a digital tuner nor connected to a cable or satellite service requires its own converter box. D-TV converters will be available nationwide at electronic stores and other U.S. retailers.
The coming transition poses special challenges for border communities. Last year, I introduced legislation that allows broadcasters along the southern border to continue analog broadcasts for five years, but maintains Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authority over broadcasts, based on public interest.
To help defray the cost of obtaining converter boxes, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will issue up to two $40 coupons per household to go toward the purchase of converter boxes. Consumers may apply for their coupons until March 31, 2009 by calling 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009) or by visiting www.dtv2009.gov. The coupons must be used within 90 days of being issued.
Those subscribing to a cable or satellite television service may not be affected by the D-TV conversion, but consumers should contact their cable or satellite provider to make sure service will not be disrupted. Many newer televisions are already equipped with a digital tuner and will not require a converter box to function after the transition. If you are not sure, you should contact the manufacturer to check the capabilities of your TV.
I encourage consumers to arm themselves with information and prepare well in advance of the transition. There are a number of resources available to help consumers get ready. Learn more from the FCC at ww.dtv.com, or visit the broadcast industry’s D-TV website, www.dtvanswers.com. To speak with someone by phone, call 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322).
Not since the conversion from black-and-white to color television in the 1950s, or from multiple party line telephones to private household lines nationwide, has the U.S. communications industry undertaken such sweeping change. However, with the right information and preparation, consumers can have a smooth transition and continued access to the public information that helps keep us all safe.