The day TV goes away: Winners and losers in the DTV transition

On Feb. 17, 2009, analog television signals will stop. For many, who switched to cable and satellite services with thousands of channels, it’s no big deal. But for some, who still jiggle rabbit-ear antennas, the switch is a problem, forcing them to replace their televisions, subscribe to cable service they may not be able to afford, or buy and install a converter box using a government coupon.

The people most affected by the change will likely be elderly, disabled, on fixed incomes or from non-English speaking households.

Studies show a majority of the population still gets news and information from television sets. To avoid blacking out some of the most vulnerable, a large-scale effort is needed. The Federal Communications Commission has recognized this, calling the preparation for digital television its “most important priority for the next six months.”

Commissioners are fanning out to 50 cities and will be in the Bay Area this week. Organizations that work with the elderly, the disabled and lower-income communities should come to sessions so they can guide their clients and constituencies. Events will be held at the Geen Mun Community Center, 777 Stockton St., in San Francisco at 10:30 a.m. Thursday; the Mission Neighborhood Center, 362 Capp St., in San Francisco at 3 p.m. Thursday; and the Asian Cultural Center, 388 Ninth St., in Oakland at 7 p.m. Wednesday. All will feature Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

This is a great start, but more needs to be done. We’d like to see community centers equipped as voucher clearinghouses, with teams coordinated to help the elderly or disabled get their coupons, purchase the boxes and install them. We’d like a big retailer like Target or Wal-Mart or Best Buy to pledge to sell the converter boxes at the coupon rate of $40 instead of the current retail rates of $50 to $70, which takes a little extra money out of people’s pockets.

I recently spoke to a 71-year-old Berkeley resident, retired and living on a fixed income, who said he can’t afford to increase his monthly expenses, uses a pay-as-you-go cell phone for emergencies only and can’t pay for a gazillion channels of cable.

“If the government is going to mandate that TV signals go out and the airwaves belong to the public and operate in the public interest, then how are people who aren’t working or have to stay at home due to illness supposed to deal with this?” he said. “It’s a fairness issue and a civil rights issue.”

But there’s more to the story. After the transition is complete, all the old analog channels will be vacant along with the side bands between the old channels (referred to as “white spaces” and still visible on analog TVs as the snowy frequencies between broadcasts). What will happen to them? If Big Broadcasting has its way, they’ll be auctioned off and licensed for yet more additions to the dizzying array of special interest cable and satellite offerings, joining hundreds of specialty channels.

But a coalition of media reform groups and some Internet companies, such as Google, are envisioning a new model. If these powerful pieces of spectrum remain unlicensed, then they’ll be available for the development of faster broadband, including wireless connections at a speed and strength never before possible, that can cross trees, buildings and mountains, catapulting America from No. 15 in world broadband speed into the top five.

It’s a priceless opportunity to connect America as rabbit-ear antennas once connected us to a fireside chat. We can’t afford to waste it.

Tracy Rosenberg is the director of the Oakland-based Media Alliance.

General OpinionOpinion

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