Apr 1 2009

Digital Justice for All

End of analog TV exposes digital divide

Digital TV: Are you ready for June 12, 2009?

On June 12, all analog television signals will go dark, and many people will be cut off from an important information source.

The cause: the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act, signed into law by George W. Bush in February 2006. This act gave the Federal Communications Commission the authority to terminate analog licenses for full-power television stations and reclaim the spectrum for public safety and commercial wireless broadband services. By the end of the transition, digital television transmissions will be in the spectrum currently occupied by TV channels 2 through 51—the “core” TV spectrum—while television channels 52-69 will be cleared for wireless communications.

TV viewers with digital television (DTV) equipment will gain access to more channels and clearer signals, but those without DTV who rely on broadcast television (i.e., not cable or satellite) will be staring at a blank screen unless they get a converter box. Over 400 television stations have already begun broadcasting exclusively in digital, leaving thousands in the dark. And those hardest hit are the most vulnerable: Of the approximately 21 million U.S. residents who rely on over-the-air television, half make less than $30,000 a year (Government Accountability Office, 2/17/05).

“In the Red River Valley [of Minnesota/North Dakota], all but one TV station made the switch to digital, leaving many people with questions and pressure from cable and satellite providers to buy their services,” said Duke Schempp (High Plains Reader, 3/6/09), executive director and lead organizer for Minnesota’s People Escaping Poverty Project (PEPP).

While the DTV Act also authorized a program to offer two $40 coupons per household to offset the cost of purchasing the necessary converter box, preparing for the DTV transition can be confusing and complicated, exacerbating the already growing divisions between haves and have-nots in U.S. society. To help make sure people don’t get left on the wrong side of the digital divide, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has contracted with local groups to provide outreach or to serve as DTV Tech Assistance Centers—organizations like PEPP, the Main Street Project (MSP), Minnesota Media Empowerment Project (MnMEP) and Texas Media Empowerment Project (Texas MEP).

These centers offer people help on things like getting rebate coupons, buying and installing the right converter box, and understanding what they do and don’t need in order to keep watching TV as a result of this transition. Ernesto Olivo of Texas MEP has helped people cancel cable subscriptions and return HD TVs they were pressured into buying unnecessarily. For those without a cable connection, a good antenna is necessary to get good digital signals—so when Schempp’s group holds information sessions on the DTV transition, the second part of the meeting focuses on building antennas. A simple antenna made out of little more than tin foil, coaxial cable and a shoe box can be put together for about a $1 and “kicks sand in the face of most low-end indoor antennas that cost up to $100,” said Schempp (High Plains Reader, 3/12/09).

Community activism has already succeeded in pushing back the transition from the originally scheduled date of February 17, giving activists more time to bridge the divide. And the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net) has launched a national campaign calling for a socially responsible DTV transition. Most converter boxes cost from $45 to $80 (Consumer Reports, 6/08), while the government coupon only covers $40. The “No-Cost Converter Box Pledge” campaign urges electronics retailers to acknowledge the importance of broadcast TV as an information source by offering a $40 converter box in their stores.

“Many people in our community are struggling,” Schempp told the High Plains Reader (3/6/09). “Most of us live frugally and simply want to be able to be able to see the storm warnings, the latest news, the new president addressing the nation…. Meanwhile, three of the four networks in the Red River Valley switched to digital and my old Zenith TV is a one-channel wonder.”

Making a successful transition from analog to digital broadcasting is not simply a matter of being able to watch your favorite TV show with better audio and video. At stake is the ability of the nation’s most vulnerable populations to maintain their fundamental right of access to a key affordable source of news and information.

“We’re working with folks who are ‘off the grid,’ not counted by census, living by bare means,” says DeAnne Cuellar of Texas MEP. “It’s hard to see TV as just entertainment when you see people watching TV in their front yard, sharing with their neighbors and pirating electricity.”