Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Great Digital Switch: In the Coming Technological Revolution, Will There Be Space for the Common Good?

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Great Digital Switch: In the Coming Technological Revolution, Will There Be Space for the Common Good?

Article excerpt

When color television became popular in the 1960s, you could still use your old black-and-white set. When CDs took over the recorded music market in the 1980s, your vinyl would still play on your turntable. And while you can get only DVDs at Blockbuster or Netflix, your collection of old VHS tapes will still play just fine. But in February 2009, we face the first forced technological revolution that will actually render a whole category of devices--the analog TV set--utterly useless. That's when all broadcast television will go digital, and any pre-digital television will stop working.

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Obviously, this is a fabulous Christmas present for the Japanese companies that hire Chinese women to manufacture digital televisions for the American market. And it's a major headache for U.S. landfill operators who will be dealing with all those discarded analog sets. But the switch to digital TV also provides a new opportunity for universal, affordable broadband Internet service all over America as the huge swath of broadcast frequencies previously occupied by analog TV become available for other uses. Unfortunately, the great digital switch also provides yet another window on what's wrong with the way we've made communications policy in America for the past 25 years.

The switch to digital television will mean nothing to the majority of Americans who get their television signal from a cable. But 11 percent of American households, mostly low-income, still get their only television access off the air. To that significant minority of broadcast-only homes, you can add rural satellite users, who must also have a broadcast antenna to get any local TV stations. And most of them do, because, in the age of computer-operated Clear Channel radio stations, local TV is the only reliable source for news about severe weather warnings, school closings, and other vital public service information. So this year a significant chunk of the country is receiving an unfunded mandate to enrich the economies of Japan and China by purchasing new TVs.

It is possible to get a converter box that will allow digital signals to be viewed on an analog set. And you can get a $40 coupon from the government to cover part of the cost of the boxes. …

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