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When regular TV broadcasts go dark

Michael Hulfactor questions Uncle Sam's ability to help millions of analog TV owners make the transition to digital TV broadcasts.

If you were caught off guard when the federal government rescheduled the changeover to the daylight saving time, be prepared for another shock just over the horizon.

On February 17, 2009, the analog over-the-air TV broadcasting we've known for more than 50 years is scheduled to end and be replaced by digital broadcasting. Once television stations drop their analog broadcasting and go digital, old-style analog TV sets will effectively go dark.

While moving the nation to a superior technology, this analog-to-digital transition could cause massive problems for Americans still using analog sets, especially those who get television programs off the free airwaves.

The change to digital broadcasting was mandated by Congress as a way of updating the nation's television broadcasting network in one fell swoop. It's already stimulating innovation in both broadcasting and consumer products, and helping move computing, gaming and communications (along with television) closer to digital convergence.

Consumers also will benefit from digital broadcasting's higher-quality pictures and flexibility in entertainment choices. But the federal digital-broadcasting mandate is turning the usual market-based mechanism of technology adoption by consumers on its head. It artificially compresses into months an analog-to-digital transition that would take years, if market forces were allowed to operate.

The federal digital-broadcasting mandate is turning the usual market-based mechanism of technology adoption by consumers on its head.

Normally, technology adoption involves a choice between competing solutions in the marketplace, but the federal mandate removes from consumers the power to choose and buy technology. Consumers will not be able to continue receiving free over-the-air broadcasting.

By February 17, 2009, those who wish to continue watching TV will have had to purchase something new, such as a digital-capable TV or a special analog-to-digital conversion box. Or they may abandon the free over-the-air model altogether and buy cable or satellite services. If they don't, television will go dark for them.

Roughly 21 million American households--more than 50 million people--currently use free over-the-air broadcasting, and every one of these households will have to .

According to AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), lower-income and older Americans are disproportionately represented in this group. The elderly, in particular, rely heavily on television as an important connection to the outside world, yet AARP fears that they're the ones most likely to get lost in the transition.

Since the usual market-based mechanism of technology adoption by consumers is absent, the federal government bears responsibility for mitigating the transition.

The government is focusing its efforts on subsidizing the conversion boxes. These boxes will enable households to keep their current analog TV sets and continue to receive over-the-air broadcasting after the transition to digital occurs, though some households could experience reception difficulties with their existing antennas.

Each household will be required to submit a request for as many as two $40 coupons that can be used to partially offset the cost of two conversion boxes.

The government's transition plan seems to be too little, too late. It's uncertain whether enough inexpensive conversion boxes will be available in advance of the transition deadline. There's no word yet on who is going to install them and who will pay for the installation.

In addition to the nuisance of acquiring and using a coupon, analog TV owners will have to grapple with another question: how far will $40 go to offset the total cost of purchasing and installing a conversion box, and possibly a new antenna? And will lower-income and older people actually sign up in large numbers to get these coupons?

Finally, information is sketchy about safeguards to prevent fraud and price gouging during the short time frame millions of households will be given to modify their television setups.

The analog-to-digital broadcasting transition could cause more than a little inconvenience for millions of people, especially lower-income and older Americans. Scant consumer education and weak support is in place, yet the nation is only a little more than 22 months away from a new "daylight saving time change effect."

The clock is ticking.