As TV moves on, millions may face blank screens in US

June 11th, 2009 - 10:41 am ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama By Andy Goldberg
San Francisco, June 11 (DPA) In a land where television has long been a basic necessity of life, millions of people may find themselves without access to television Friday when the US switches from analog to digital broadcasting.

The change is part of a long-delayed update in the allocation of the wireless spectrum, which is used to broadcast everything from TV signals to mobile phone services and emergency radio traffic.

It is designed to free up valuable frequencies previously used by television stations to broadcast their signals and which will now become part of the information superhighway on which users of iPhones, Blackberries and other smartphones and mobile laptops will increasingly get the information they need to stay connected 24/7.

Those broadcast spectrums have already been sold by the US government to mobile phone companies for billions of dollars. But at least for now the scheme is far from a win-win situation on the road to communications nirvana.

Critics complain that it is the poor and disadvantaged who once again are paying the price for progress as the analog signals of local and network stations are terminated - forcing people to either subscribe to costly cable or satellite service or to buy and install digital converters for their TV sets.

Industry trade group DTV Across America estimates that between 20 and 30 million household faced the need to transition to the new system.

Aware of these issues, the US government has spent more than $2 billion on a voucher programme, in which every household can get two vouchers worth $40 each to buy two converter boxes.

However, despite a massive advertising campaign and a three-month postponement of the switch date, millions of households are estimated not to have availed themselves of the new service and are set to lose their signal entirely when analog broadcasting becomes a relic of history June 12.

The latest survey by the Nielsen Company indicates that as of the end of May, more than 10 percent of the 114 million households that have television sets are either completely or partly unprepared.

Many of those are likely to turn to a 4,000-people strong call centre set up by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to help people make the switch.

In an interview with the New York Times, acting FCC chairman Michael J. Copps conceded that the impact was likely to be hardest on poor families, the handicapped, the elderly and in homes where little English is spoken.

“We are much better prepared than we were in February, when the original transition was to have occurred, but there will nonetheless be significant disruptions,” Copps said. “In the past five months we’ve tried to accomplish what should have been done over the last four years.”

There are advantages and disadvantages to watching TV through these converter boxes. Firstly, the boxes can be a hassle to install - especially for those not fond or adept at moving their televisions and dealing with the mass of cables in the back. Numerous companies do offer installation services for the new converter boxes but these services bump the cost of conversion far above the $40 value of the coupons.

In some areas the digital signal can be better than analog - though in others it can be worse or even nonexistent. Many digital boxes do offer a useful viewing guide - though some elderly people complain that learning how to navigate the system with a new remote control is fiendishly complicated.

“It has all been a nightmare, and it’s very, very upsetting,” said Frances Lim, a 72-year-old woman in San Jose California. “We don’t have money for cable or satellite and were very happy with the few stations we have been getting for years. Now we have to change. I didn’t know how to do it. Luckily my grandson helped me. But I’m still learning the new remote control.”

US President Barack Obama is helping the effort to prepare for the switch.

“The number of households unprepared for digital television has been cut in half. Still, some people are not ready,” said Obama in a statement last week. “I encourage all Americans who are prepared to talk to their friends, family, and neighbours to make sure they get ready before it’s too late. I urge everyone who is not yet prepared to act today.” Obama said.

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