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.