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The Digital TV Transition: One Year to Go


This is my official, one-year-until-the-digital-TV transition post. Consider it part primer, part Motorola perspective.

Why are we having a digital TV transition?
The original impetus behind moving to all-digital television was a regulatory push to reclaim broadcast channels for public/civic use. However, with the rapid growth of HDTV, on-demand television and streaming video on the Web, reclaiming bandwidth has become a high priority for network operators as well. As it turns out, the DTV transition is proving far more expensive than cable operators originally bargained for (a result of the CableCARD mandate combined with must-carry rules), but in the long run it still represents a bandwidth boon.

The other major benefit of the move to all-digital is the rendering of all kinds of content and communication into simple ones and zeroes. In other words, when everything is made up of the same basic materials, it becomes a lot easier to offer cross-platform and interactive services. As a wild example, think about being able to clip a section of a ball game on TV, overlay it with your own commentary, and then ship it off to a friend’s cell phone, all in the space of a few minutes from your living room couch. I’m not saying anyone is about to offer such a service, but technically speaking it should be entirely possible in an all-digital world.

How will the DTV transition happen?
The truth is it won’t happen all at once, and anyone who pays for cable or telco TV won’t feel much impact one year from now at all. Many operators will continue to broadcast analog signals for several years despite the cost in bandwidth. And those operators that do make the digital transition will have to provide free digital set-tops to any subscribers with analog TVs.

The biggest impact of the official transition will be on the consumers who watch TV over the air (OTA) and still own analog television sets. In one year, if these consumers are still in the dark about the DTV transition, they’ll really be in the dark when they try to tune to network television. Even those folks watching OTA with digital converter boxes may be in for an unpleasant surprise. With analog signals if you’re in a bad coverage area you might get a fuzzy picture. With digital signals if you’re in a bad coverage area you won’t get any picture at all.

What Happens on February 17, 2009?
That’s the million-dollar question. As Motorola exec Nick Chakalos pointed out to me, someone could make a nice niche business out of proactively offering customer support services to ease the DTV transition. For example, what happens when a consumer isn’t happy with his retail digital converter box? Does the store provide support, or does it come from somewhere else? It will be interesting to see what surprises are ahead for the average OTA TV household. With the right education efforts over the next 366 days (it’s a leap year…) We may see nothing but a few isolated cases of DTV mishap. That’s certainly what everyone – broadcasters, operators, retailers, the FCC, CE vendors, consumers – is hoping for.