Why the digital transition

One of my students asked whether his television set, connected to a cable system but with no set-top box, would be able to receive digital television after February 17, 2009.

So I decided to try the experiment of being a consumer with this question. I was happy to see the NCTA has this site with information about how this will work. And this:

The good news for cable customers is
that the digital transition should be easy. Thanks to a compromise
adopted by the FCC in September 2007, cable companies will carry the
main digital signal of “must carry” commercial broadcast TV stations
and will duplicate that signal into analog format so that all channels
can be viewed on any older analog TV sets connected to cable.

That’s putting a bright spin on a mandate that cable systems do the work of transforming digital broadcast signals into analog so that a majority of
the people with cable subscriptions will be able to continue to watch all of their local
broadcast stations on analog TVs until at least 2012. (I’m not sure whether cable systems will be allowed to charge for offering the analog version of the digital signal.) Also, see the words “main digital signal”? The FCC agreed to allow cable operators to remove sub-channels from the
broadcasters’ digital signal so as to allow as much compression of the signal as possible.

But if you’re not connected to cable this could be tricky. The first converter box has been approved [site requires free registration], but it costs $69.99. Lots of hearings are scheduled to examine how on earth consumers will hear about the digital transition and be allocated vouchers for these boxes.

Why are we going through all of these conniptions with broadcast, when the broadcasters themselves realize that they won’t survive unless the cable systems carry their signals? When their sub-channels won’t be carried? And when broadcasting is becoming just a subset of online content anyway?

The answer is that over-the-air television is free (in that you don’t have to pay a subscription fee, even you do have to spend time watching the ads), and no one wants to be the politician who strands people without a television signal.

Soon we’ll all be in virtual Google-worlds


  1. Pricing is key factor that is not being discussed in this issue. Vouchers for converter boxes gets all the headlines, but that is a small issue compared with monthly fees. Thank you for mentioning the problem, (I'm not sure whether cable systems will be allowed to charge for offering the analog version of the digital signal.)
    It is very hard to get a straight answer from cable companies or the FCC on the following:
    1. how much will current non-cable customers have to pay for monthly analog converted television?
    2. how much will current analog cable customers have to pay monthly after the digital conversion? Will we be forced to pay the higher monthly digital cable price? That would probably be an extra $200+/year at the current rates.

  2. Thanks – these monthly fees are key. I hope this issue comes up at the hearings. I hope that digital televisions are cheap enough that it will make sense to get a basic one and go on getting OTA television.