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Digital Television Now!

Boing Boing's Joel Johnson on why we should change the channel already

The televisions in 6.5 million American households will stop working when stations are forced to switch to the digital format-and I don't care.Although it's been pushed back time and again (yesterday the Senate voted to postpone the transition deadline once more, from February 17th to June 12th), the switch from analog to digital television will happen eventually. When it does, valuable radio spectrum will be freed up for new uses, like "white space" wireless networking. (Think Super Wi-Fi.)The Obama administration was behind the latest delay. It asked Congress to postpone the transition again, fearing that the 5.7 percent of American households without the proper digital-to-analog conversion boxes-boxes that can be had for free simply by requesting a voucher from the FCC-would wake up on the 17th, find themselves greeted by only static, and march in the streets.Okay, no one is really afraid of that. At best, the switchover will cause those last few million people to get off their asses and go get a converter box. (They've had several years to do so, but who could blame them for getting distracted? Television has been pretty awesome over the last few years.) At worst, they'll quit watching television-at least on their television.

It's clear that digital is the future of television, not just in over-the-air broadcasts, but in direct delivery over the internet (Think YouTube and Hulu.) For some services, like Verizon's FIOS and AT&T's U-Verse fiber-optic internet service, television signals are pumped down the same digital pipes as your internet connection.To be fair, many of those affected by the switchover are poor, disenfranchised, or disabled, and Consumers Union has raised concerns about the government's coupon program. If we were talking about something critical to a full life, I'd feel a little more compassion. But it's television. For every person that's watching the news, 20 are watching American Idol. (As one of those 20, I bow my head.)And wouldn't you rather they have a chance at high-speed internet that could do more than just replace their television signal, but also provide them two-way access to the rest of the connected world?Those analog television frequencies aren't just going to sit unused. They've already been provisioned for a wide array of wireless data services that could very well revolutionize broadband connectivity in the United States. Some of the spectrum has been licensed by big, often evil corporations like Verizon and AT&T (I do not think all large corporations are evil, but telecommunication companies that thrive in large part due to taxpayer largess who also see fit to facilitate warrentless wiretapping of American citizens are pretty much the definition of corporate evil). But part of the spectrum being freed up will be released as "open," potentially allowing all manner of devices and services to flourish.Not to mention the white space devices that may, as part of a wide-ranging wireless service offered by Google or another technology company, provide the first serious competition to the wireless carriers for long-range wireless internet service.The switchover to digital will inconvenience some, but it puts us on a path for real innovation in the future. In twenty years we'll be kicking back watching all the television we want through the internet-not to mention all the other forms of entertainment we haven't even invented yet-and wonder why we waited so long to make the switch.UPDATE: The original text of this piece suggested that Congress had voted to postpone the transition to digital television. In fact, at this time, only the Senate has voted to postpone the transition. The piece has been updated to reflect this correction.Joel Johnson writes about technology so much that he sometimes gets tired of it, but stays interested when gadgets and computers actually make life better. He is about to move to Eugene, Oregon with his dog and his favorite plants.

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