The end of analog

In a little over a year from now, analog television signals will no longer be broadcast over the air.

The Federal Communication Commission has ruled that Feb. 17, 2009, will be the last day of analog broadcasts. All full-power TV stations need to be converted to digital signals by that date, to free up the upper broadcast spectrum for other uses.

Since digital signals are far more efficient than analog, digital broadcasting allows multicasting of several programs over one channel. Because of the greater amount of information transmitted in a high-definition broadcast, multicasting high-definition isn’t possible, although even standard digital broadcasts will be of higher quality than analog.

“The DTV transition is the most significant television revolution since the advent of color TV.” FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate said in a Dec. 31 statement.

However, a statement a month later by Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein admitted that while public awareness of the digital transition was increasing, what it would mean to people wasn’t always clear.

“There is still a lot of confusion that could turn into widespread panic if the government doesn’t take a more proactive role,” he said in the statement.

What the transition means for rural communities is even less clear. The low-power stations that serve small communities are of a different class that the FCC isn’t holding to a fixed deadline, though it’s still mandating the digital transition.

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The FCC held a Digital Television Consumer Education Workshop Jan. 31 to specifically address the challenges rural areas and Native/Indian communities will face in going from analog to digital. Associate Director Larry Persily, from Alaska’s Washington, D.C., office, said that the Alaska Rural Communications Service will face a unique challenge in upgrading its nearly 30-year-old equipment.

“They serve about 125,000 Alaskans. Each community has a little VHF transmitter,” he said. “The state is eventually going to have to upgrade those 200-plus receivers and transmitters for digital.”

Persily estimated the cost of the upgrades could be about $10 million for the state, but upgrading consumers’ equipment in the villages could be a bigger challenge.

“Certainly notification is going to be an issue in those rural communities,” he said. “In rural Alaska it’s likely to cost much more than the $40 (for the converters); the problem is not just going to be education, but getting the equipment out to the remote areas where you can’t drive.”

Persily also said it will be important to have someone trained in each community who will be able to teach others how to set up the converters and make sure everyone is educated on the transition.

Despite the challenges, Persily said the benefits of multicasting digital channels would allow Alaska’s rural communities to have more options, such as the university’s distance education channel, public television and Gavel to Gavel.

“When we go to digital signals, we’ll be able to put all four of those in there and give people in those communities more television, rather than just the one channel,” he said.

Meanwhile, Anchorage viewers can already pick up digital channels over the air, as local stations were granted a second UHF channel to begin broadcasting digitally while maintaining their same analog channel during the transitional period.

For more on the digital TV switchover, go to www.dtv.gov or go to www.FCC.gov for all the details.

For more technology news, reviews and features, check out Aaron Burkhart’s blog at techwatcher.wordpress.com.