The DTV transition will give you better, cheaper television.

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June 11 2009 5:04 PM

Digital TV Is Here. Please Remain Calm!

Why the DTV transition will give you better, cheaper television.

Old TV. Click image to expand.
An old TV

After more than a decade of warning, preparation, whining, delay, denial, anger, bargaining, and finally resignation, it's here: On Friday, your television will go digital. Most likely you'll notice nothing at all. The digital television transition, a congressionally mandated change in the way broadcasters send images over the air to your TV, will affect only the small minority of Americans who still get most of their shows through an antenna. If you subscribe to cable or satellite—or if you're using an antenna but have a TV made after 2007—you've got nothing to worry about.

Even those who are affected by the transition have been moving quickly to update their TVs. According to Nielsen, many have purchased new sets or applied for government coupons to buy digital converter boxes, which allow old TVs to continue to work after the switch. Only 2.5 percent of American households still aren't ready for the change. The transition, in other words, looks like it'll go off mostly without a hitch.

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Still, lots of people are in the dark about what the change means, and the benefits of the switch—and its small, niggling difficulties—aren't widely known. Though government agencies and well-meaning consumer groups have been advising citizens on the change for years, the story remains lost in a sea of confusing acronyms and technical specifications. News outlets tend to pump up the ridiculous fear that a huge swath of TVs across the land will go dark. Meanwhile, scammy businesses are pushing people to buy equipment they don't need, like antennas that are supposedly "tuned for HDTV" (a myth I'll bust below). There are other problems, too. Even though new TVs and some peripheral devices like TiVos are prepped for receiving digital television, they're not very adept at navigating the new channels that have been created by the switch. Plus, programmers don't have a standardized protocol for dealing with digital TV. For instance, soon most every television set will be able to receive widescreen pictures, but shows and commercials still switch randomly and annoyingly between widescreen and full-screen.

For all these problems, there are a couple of amazing advantages to digital TV, benefits that you hardly hear about in the apocalyptic coverage of the transition. The first one: The switch is going to free up a vast share of public airwaves that can be used for much better things than TV. Last year, the government auctioned off the "spectrum" that TV stations will give up once they stop broadcasting analog signals. Verizon and AT&T won the radio space, though Google, in its first big foray into lobbying, managed to convince the Federal Communications Commission to require that the telecom companies keep the new space "open"—meaning that they can't restrict what software or hardware customers use on the airwaves. As a result of the switch, we'll soon get a much better wireless Internet—wider coverage, faster downloads, and with fewer restrictions. That's much more worthwhile than a snowy local channel showing reruns of Golden Girls.

The second advantage concerns your television. Now that broadcasters are transmitting digital signals, you can get amazing TV reception for free through an antenna. In other words, it's a great time to ditch cable!

Before I get into the specifics of cable-ditching, let's first clear up some terminology. The people who came up with new standards for TV ought to win some kind of Achievement in Mass Confusion Award for picking two similar acronyms—DTV and HDTV—that stand for entirely different concepts. The D in DTV stands for digital; the D in HDTV stands for definition, as in high-definition. DTV refers to the way signals are coded when they're transmitted over the air; after Friday's DTV transition, all of the signals that travel into your home will carry television programming digitally. HDTV refers to the picture you see once the signals get to your television—a high-definition picture is a lot clearer than a traditional standard-def picture.

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