As consumers and cable companies prepare for the Feb. 17, 2009, switch from analog to digital television broadcasting, some educators are wondering how their schools’ televisions will be affected.

The U.S. government has stipulated that all local broadcast stations will begin sending their signals digitally next year, discontinuing the use of analog signals.  Changing to an all-digital format will free up the analog signal capacity, some of which will be made available to emergency first responders such as local police and fire departments. Other available analog signals will be auctioned off.

At risk of losing TV signals once the transition occurs are those who use antennas for television sets not connected to a cable or satellite service–whether those antennas are on a roof or a set of “rabbit ears.” Those with analog televisions can apply for a $40 coupon from the federal government to purchase a converter box. Prices for these boxes range from $40 to $70–a one-time cost with no monthly fee.

As long as older analog TV sets are connected to a cable service, they will continue to display local broadcast stations after the transition, according to a digital TV transition guide from Cable in the Classroom (CIC).

If a school receives television service through a cable company or other multi-channel provider, its technology staff might not have to do anything to prepare for the transition, because most cable companies already have technology in place to handle the new digital formats of local TV stations. For the most part, as long as the TV sets in a school building are connected to cable TV service, they will display local stations.

But schools might need to examine their internal networks and distribution systems to see if their broadcasting might be affected. A school or district technology coordinator should have information on that. 

Although many schools have cable, not all of a school’s television sets might be hooked up to the cable service. Analog TVs, which are TVs without digital tuners, can be used to play videos and DVDs–but they’ll have to be connected to digital cable or satellite TV service to display full-power, over-the-air television signals, or have a converter to display local free broadcasting if not hooked up to a cable service.

If it’s unclear whether a TV set is digital-ready, meaning that it has a digital tuner already built into the set, the owner’s manual or manufacturer’s web site should have that information. School technology personnel might have to look for an input connection labeled “digital input” or “ATSC” if the first two options aren’t feasible.

Some civil-rights and consumer advocacy groups are warning that millions of Americans are ill-prepared for the transition to digital TV in February–and schools could be asked to play a role in helping spread the word.

Earlier this month, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) released a report–called “Transition in Trouble: Action Needed to Ensure a Successful Digital Television Transition”–detailing the challenges to achieving a successful transition and identifying several action steps to meeting these hurdles.
 
“The transition to digital television will probably not go as smoothly as everyone would like, but if Congress acts now, we can ensure that millions aren’t cut out of modern 21st-century communications next February,” said LCCR Executive Vice President Nancy Zirkin.
 
The transition to digital TV will disproportionately affect low-income Americans, seniors, people with disabilities, minorities, and people who speak languages other than English, the group said–many of whom rely on free over-the-air television.
 
“We need to reach deep into communities who rely on over-the-air broadcasting to find out if they are prepared for the transition, and we need to make sure all Americans get the message about the DTV transition from messengers they trust in a language they can understand,” said Mark Lloyd, LCCR’s vice president for strategic initiatives.  “Then, we need to follow up to make sure they get the assistance they need to continue to have access to important news and emergency broadcasts.”
 
Some consumers mistake the transition to digital television for high-definition television (HDTV), but the two are not the same. HDTV refers to increased sharpness in picture and sound, and it will be available through the digital television broadcasting–but HDTV is still an optional feature.

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has conducted several focus groups about the upcoming transition, and Jan McNamara, director of corporate communications, said many people seem to be confusing HDTV with digital television.

“There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what this means, and HDTV is one of the chief pieces of misinformation–people are mixing DTV and HDTV,” she said.

While those who subscribe to a cable or satellite service should be unaffected, McNamara said it isn’t a bad idea for them to call their service provider to double-check.

“Individual operators are preparing for the transition in different ways–it’s best to check,” she said.

Cable companies will send out digital signals for local broadcasting channels, such as NBC and CBS, the same way they are currently sending out signals for premium channels such as the History Channel and the Discovery Channel.

One often-overlooked detail of the transition that McNamara said is especially important is that television stations that are going digital are full-power stations.  Low-power stations are not required to make the transition to digital by the February 2009 deadline.

Those in a low-power area who are applying for a coupon to purchase a converter box should look for a box with analog pass-through, which still allows analog signals to come into a TV set.

Rural areas use translators, which are towers that pick up a broadcast signal and keep it going. Translators do not necessarily have to convert to digital in February, either, and the analog pass-through box applies in those areas as well.

The National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA) has a web site where users can check to see if they are serviced by a low-power station or a translator. The NTIA also notes, on its list of all available converter boxes, which have analog pass-through.

Links:

Cable in the Classroom’s Digital TV Guide

Leadership Conference on Civil Rights

PBS Digital TV Guide

National Telecommunications and Information Association

DTV Transition Coalition

Get Ready for Digital TV

TV Converter Box Coupon Program

Television Recycling