MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.
(Soundbite of music)
SIEGEL: This week, the deadline for conversion to digital television. It's scheduled for February 17th, but President Obama has asked for a delay, concerned that there are an estimated six-and-a-half million people who still are not 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.
So, today we're going to do something we haven't done before on All Tech Considered, which is we're going to head to Capitol Hill and be joined there by NPR's Andrea Seabrook, who has been following the politics of digital TV. Hi, ya.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Hi, ya.
SIEGEL: Where does this stand?
SEABROOK: Well, it's an interesting situation. The House, as you said, voted it down last week. The House is going to bring it back up on Wednesday, and almost certainly, cross your fingers, pass it this time. And they're bringing up the Senate bill so they won't have to go to conference. This thing should be on the president's desk by Wednesday, Thursday, something like that.
SIEGEL: Now, why was there enough opposition in the House of Representatives to delaying the transition to defeat it the first time out?
SEABROOK: One word, Robert, and it's politics. This was just the Republicans taking advantage of certain House rules that required a two-thirds majority for this thing to pass. The Republicans voted it down, in essence, gaining a political win. The Democrats can just bring it back up, which they will do this week on Wednesday, and they will pass it with flying colors and send it to the president.
SIEGEL: Now, one of the other issues with the delay has been with the cost of the transition. The government offered coupons for families to buy the digital converter boxes and launched an extensive series of public service announcements urging people to do that. Given the state of the economy now, how is the cost of that transition factoring into those politics you talked about earlier?
SEABROOK: Well, I think the cost and, also, the confusion about the digital transition - who needs to get a converter box - both of those things are really factoring into the big problems here. Lots and lots of people who don't need converter boxes applied for those coupons. And the Commerce Department had a limit to how much money they could give out in those coupons. So, they hit that ceiling, $1.34 billion dollars, pretty quickly. And now the Commerce Department has to wait for those coupons to expire before they can give out new ones. And that's why there's an estimated, you know, six-and-a-half million people who need these converter boxes and haven't gotten them yet, especially rural people, elderly people who didn't quite know that this was coming.
So, what this bill does is it not only delays it so that some of those coupons can expire and the Commerce Department can send out new ones, but it also extends the coupons for some people so that people can go out and get the converter boxes.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Andrea.
SEABROOK: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: And even though Andrea has made the story of the digital conversion as clear as a high-def image on a 50-inch plasma screen, there are still some questions about the technology that remain - our questions and, also, the questions that we asked you to submit at our Web site. And joining us now to clear up some of the confusion is our tech guru, Omar Gallaga. Hi, Omar.
OMAR GALLAGA: Hi, thanks for having me, Robert.
SIEGEL: A basic question: What exactly is the different between digital TV and high definition TV?
GALLAGA: Well, all the programming that's going to be broadcast after the stations switch over will be digital TV, but not all of it will be high definition television. There are several digital standards having to do with the quality of the image. If you've been shopping for a TV recently, you might've seen 720P or 1080P. This refers to the resolutions of the TV, but there's also a lower format called 480P that's digital, but not necessarily high-def.
SIEGEL: So, for people who have analog TV now and get a converter box, digital TV will or will not mean better picture quality?
GALLAGA: It will mean more consistent and clear picture quality if you get it. The problem with digital TV is that 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.
SIEGEL: So, what are the benefits of digital TV?
GALLAGA: Well, the biggest advantage of digital TV is that it takes up a lot less bandwidth on the airwaves than analog TV does. That means there can be more channels and more information transmitted in that same amount of space. Broadcasters can fit several subchannels into the same space where they normally just transmit one. Here in Austin, our PBS station, KLRU, has multiple digital subchannels where they show different programming all at the same time. And digital TV can also transmit programming information like you'd get on a cable channel guide.
SIEGEL: In addition to my questions, as you know, we have questions from the audience, our listeners. We asked you out there to send us questions that you have about the conversion to digital TV, and here are some of them. Ready, Omar?
SIEGEL: Rosa Macklin(ph) of Detroit asks, my TV is both digital and analogue and I installed a digital converter box a few months ago. If I took off the converter box, would my TV still work after February 17th?
GALLAGA: Yes, if you already have a digital television, and it has a digital tuner in it, you should be just fine. You can plug the antenna directly into the TV and receive local broadcasts.
SIEGEL: Ms. Macklin actually didn't really have to buy that converter box, did she?
GALLAGA: No, but there are some older digital televisions that are HD ready, perhaps, that maybe don't have a tuner built in, so you do need something to kind of pass the signal along to it. So they can display digital signals, they just don't have the hardware in them to actually tune in the channels themselves.
SIEGEL: One of the recurring concerns we've heard from listeners is just how this transition will impact rural communities, and we got this letter from Dwayne Ricketson(ph) of Olmstedville, New York. He writes, I live in the Adirondack Mountains with a weak fringe reception, even with the most powerful rooftop antenna and a mast preamplifier with rotor. Some stations come in better than others. I don't have a sharp snow-free picture, even with the strongest channel signal I get.
What are my chances that I'll be able to get a digital signal if I spend the money to buy a converter box, so I can receive a digital signal on my analog TV? I have heard with digital signals that you either get a great picture or you get nothing.
GALLAGA: Yeah, unfortunately, this is going to be a major problem for people who live in the far fringe of digital TV broadcasts. With digital TV, like you said, either the signals come in bright and clear or you get some pixilation and breakup. The signal strength that you're going to get compared to the analog signals you're used to is going to depend on the power that the stations are using for their digital broadcasts.
The good news is that the antenna technology keeps getting better and better, and a lot of people that experiment with the rooftop antennas are getting signals up to 70 miles away. I live about 30, 35 miles from San Antonio and I'm able to get those signals with just a small indoor antenna. So, the best advice I can give you is to go ahead and get that converter box, but keep your receipt in case you need to take it back.
SIEGEL: You live in a fairly flat area, though, in Texas.
GALLAGA: I do. Yeah, a lot of it depends on the terrain. So, if you're - they kind of max out at about 70 miles, but that depends on if there's buildings and what the terrain is like between you and the station.
SIEGEL: Well, Omar, thanks, as always, for sharing your insight.
GALLAGA: Thanks for having me, Robert.
SIEGEL: It's Omar Gallaga, who writes about technology culture for the Austin-American Statesman, and who talks with us here on All Tech Considered. Tell us what you think and send us your questions and your ideas for what you'd like to hear us consider on All Tech Considered. You can do that at npr.org/alltech.