Rabbit-ear TV switch comes with $40 carrots

Plugged In

March 15, 2007|By Mike Himowitz | Mike Himowitz,Sun Columnist

If you have TV sets that pull in stations through antennas, listen up. The federal government will give you two vouchers worth $40 apiece to buy converters to keep those sets from going dark when broadcasters switch from analog to digital signals in less than two years.

We don't know when the vouchers will be available, but when they are, sign up right away -- because there may not be enough to go around. If the government is going to take away the TV broadcasts you've been perfectly happy with, it might as well pay part of the cost to keep your set alive.

The $40 vouchers are the heart of a $1.5 billion switchover plan announced this week by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. This little-known agency has an unhappy job -- taking the sting out of a forced change in household technology that will turn politically toxic once millions of viewers figure out they've been had.

As part of a deal hatched by politicians, broadcasters and TV makers in the mid-1990s, the nation's TV stations are abandoning the analog transmission system they've used for over-the-air broadcasts since the 1940s.

They're replacing it with a new and incompatible digital transmission scheme that will provide them with more channels, including the capacity for high-definition broadcasts. The change will also force consumers to spend billions on new TVs, converters, antennas and other gadgets.

Most local stations are broadcasting in both formats today. But Congress has told broadcasters to cease their analog transmissions on Feb. 17, 2009.

That politically convenient date is just after the Super Bowl, but far enough ahead of the NCAA basketball tournament that lawmakers can skip town before millions of fans start to realize that they can't get digital broadcasts in their neighborhoods. But that's a subject for another column.

Analog sets that receive today's broadcasts over the air will stop working on that date -- unless they're equipped with a box containing a digital tuner that converts the new signal into an analog stream that the old TV can display. Many viewers may also need new antennas.

Cable or satellite providers will continue to give us analog signals our existing TVs can understand. So most of us won't be affected for years. But 19 million American households rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts. Presumably, their inhabitants either don't want cable -- or can't afford it. The latter are mostly poor and elderly, or both.

Even if your home has cable, you'll be affected if you still have one or more sets that get over-the-air broadcasts. My 88-year-old mother-in-law is typical of these viewers: Her apartment has cable outlets in the den and bedroom but not in the kitchen, where she likes to watch the news while she makes dinner. So she uses a 13-inch TV with a rabbit-ear antenna.

Forced to replace perfectly good TV sets with new technology they don't want, can't afford or both, these folks would be likely to raise hell if Congress did nothing to help them out. Hence a $1.5 billion conversion program approved last year.

Sometime after Jan. 1, 2008, NTIA will make the first $990 million allocated for converter vouchers available to any household in the country, regardless of whether it receives broadcasts over the air or has cable service.

Households will be limited to two $40 vouchers, which can be used like "gift cards" at retailers that participate in the program (most of the big outlets will). Viewers will be able to apply for vouchers by calling a toll-free number, logging onto a Web site, or submitting a written application by mail or fax.

When that dough runs out, NTIA can ask for another $510 million -- but the second round is limited to the people who really need the converters -- households that depend exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts.

Because the new system will be more efficient than the old analog system, the government will be able to take back a big chunk of the radio spectrum that TV broadcasters currently use and toss a few crumbs to police, firefighters, rescue and other first-responder types who need more frequencies. In fact, as it announced the switchover program for consumers, NTIA also unveiled a $1 billion program to fund new communications equipment. That's good.

But most of the vacated airwaves will be auctioned off to wireless operators who want it for really important things, such as sending high-definition porn broadcasts to your cell phone.

My prediction: The public will wake up to this swindle about this time next year, when it finds out that converter boxes and new antennas cost a lot more than the government vouchers are worth.

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