The Common Good
June 2008

The Great Digital Switch

by Danny Duncan Collum | June 2008

In the coming technological revolution, will there be space for the common good?

When color television be­came popular in the 1960s, you could still use your old black-and-white set. When CDs took over the recorded music market in the 1980s, your vinyl would still play on your turntable. And while you can get only DVDs at Blockbuster or Netflix, your collection of old VHS tapes will still play just fine. But in February 2009, we face the first forced technological revolution that will actually render a whole category of devices—the analog TV set—utterly useless. That’s when all broadcast television will go digital, and any pre-digital television will stop working.

Obviously, this is a fabulous Christmas present for the Japanese companies that hire Chinese women to manufacture digital televisions for the American market. And it’s a major headache for U.S. landfill operators who will be dealing with all those discarded analog sets. But the switch to digital TV also provides a new opportunity for universal, affordable broadband Internet service all over America as the huge swath of broadcast frequencies previously occupied by analog TV become available for other uses. Unfortunately, the great digital switch also provides yet another window on what’s wrong with the way we’ve made communications policy in America for the past 25 years.

The switch to digital television will mean nothing to the majority of Americans who get their television signal from a cable. But 11 percent of American households, mostly low-income, still get their only television access off the air. To that significant minority of broadcast-only homes, you can add rural satellite users, who must also have a broadcast antenna to get any local TV stations. And most of them do, because, in the age of computer-operated Clear Channel radio stations, local TV is the only reliable source for news about severe weather warnings, school closings, and other vital public service information. So this year a significant chunk of the country is receiving an unfunded mandate to enrich the economies of Japan and China by purchasing new TVs.

It is possible to get a converter box that will allow digital signals to be viewed on an analog set. And you can get a $40 coupon from the government to cover part of the cost of the boxes. But you have to figure out how to get the coupon yourself. And that’s a challenge, since most of the people who need the coupons are unlikely to be connected to the Internet.

IT’S ALWAYS BEEN clear that the switch to digital television would bring some disruption of service for some people. But a lot more could be done to ease the transition. The U.S. government has appropriated $6.5 million for public information and outreach on the digital switch. The United Kingdom, a much smaller country going through the same process, is spending $450 million.

The public benefit that is supposed to outweigh the cost of this transition comes because dropping analog TV will open vast swaths of the broadcast airwaves for new wireless communication services. And the newly available frequencies are powerful ones that can travel long distances and penetrate most human-made obstacles. Among other things, all this new empty airspace could be used to provide cheap, nationwide high-speed Internet coverage. It presents the opportunity for the World Wide Web to finally achieve its potential as a new frontier for democracy, free speech, and artistic expression.

And something like that may still happen, except for the “cheap” part. Instead of reserving a slice of the newly available spectrum for a nonprofit public broadband system, the presidentially appointed Federal Communications Commis­sion (FCC) auctioned it all off to the highest corporate bidders. As a result, most of our new digital commons will be under the watchful stewardship of Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

One sector of the spectrum was reserved for the public good—to provide police, fire, and EMS responders with common frequencies. But it failed to draw the minimum auction bid. That should tell us all we need to know about the compatibility of free markets and the common good. Plans for that part of the new spectrum are going back to the drawing board and Congress is planning an investigation of the failed auction, so there may still be room for some creative frequency allocation, especially if a new administration brings us a new FCC.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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