Cost And Confusion Plague Digital TV Conversion

A nationwide conversion to digital television is scheduled for Feb. 17, but President Obama has asked Congress for a delay out of concern that millions of people still aren't ready for the transition.

Last week, the Senate passed a bill to delay the switch until June. But the House voted against the bill — and this week it's going to reconsider its decision. NPR's Andrea Seabrook says the House is expected to back the proposed delay and send it to Obama for his signature by Thursday.

The holdup has been politics. The Republicans, Seabrook says, took advantage of a House rule that requires a two-thirds majority for the bill to pass, and they voted it down to gain a political win.

Cost And Confusion

The cost of the digital TV transition and confusion over who needs a converter box have been two of the big issues plaguing the process. The government has been providing $40 coupons to people who purchase special boxes to convert their analog televisions to the digital system.

"Lots and lots of people who don't need converter boxes applied for those coupons. And the Commerce Department had a limit as to how much money they could give out in those coupons," Seabrook explains. The Commerce Department hit the $1.34 billion ceiling pretty quickly and now has to wait for those coupons to expire before it can issue new ones.

An estimated 6.5 million people need the converter boxes but haven't gotten them yet, "especially rural people [and] elderly people who didn't quite know that this was coming," Seabrook says. The bill will delay the digital switchover, giving the Commerce Department time to send out new coupons when the previous ones expire.

Digital TV Vs. HDTV

"All of the programming that's going to be broadcast after the switchover will be digital TV, but not all of it will be high-definition television," says Omar Gallaga, who covers technology culture for the Austin American-Statesman.

There are several digital standards related to the quality of the image. If you've been shopping for a TV recently, you might have seen 720p or 1080p (a reference to TV resolution). But there's also a lower format called 480p, and that is digital but not necessarily high definition.

For people who have analog TV now and get a converter box, the conversion will mean "more consistent and clear picture quality" — if you're able to get the digital TV signal. Unlike with analog TV, where a weak signal will still bring in a picture, with digital TV, "if you don't get a signal, you're not going to get the ghosting or static — you're just not going to get a picture," Gallaga says.

Advantages Of Digital TV

Digital TV's biggest advantage is that it takes up a lot less bandwidth on the airwaves than analog TV does, Gallaga says. That means more channels and more information can be transmitted in that same amount of space. As a result, broadcasters can squeeze several subchannels into the space of a regular channel, and they can transmit programming information similar to that seen on cable TV.

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