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U.S. is ready to move to digital TV

Bumps in the road notwithstanding, the Consumer Electronics Association's Jason Oxman says transition from analog to digital TV is on schedule.

The Consumer Electronics Association asked to respond to a column by Michael Hulfactor, the managing director of DecisionTrend Research, on the nation's transition to digital television. In this piece, Jason Oxman offers a different perspective.

The stage is set for the most exciting and dynamic change in broadcasting since the advent of color television. The nation is transitioning from analog to digital television, and this new technology holds enormous benefits for consumers.

The technical standards setting process has been completed. The government is finalizing details of a program that will subsidize low-cost converter boxes for consumers who want to continue using their analog televisions. And the Federal Communications Commission has opened a proceeding to begin reallocating the old analog television spectrum to public safety entities for use in improving emergency response. The nation is ready for digital.

February 17, 2009, marks the end of the transition, as broadcasters discontinue their analog streams. (Most stations are broadcasting both analog and digital stations today.)

The transition to digital has been under way for nearly a decade, ensuring that all technical and operational issues are addressed. Digital television sets, including the high-definition variety, have been on the market since 1998 and more than 52 million sets have been sold.

At first glance, the transition offers consumers drastically improved picture and sound quality, but the underlying benefit is to America's first responders and our personal safety.

Additionally, broadcasters have already launched digital stations to prepare for the final transition date. Broadcasters are no longer limited to a single station--in the digital world, many broadcasters have launched three or four separate digital channels, each carrying programming of interest to diverse communities. Broadcasters have also added thousands of hours of high-definition programming to their lineups to satisfy consumers' demand for compelling HD content.

Consumers have truly taken to this new technology. Amazingly, digital television has been adopted even faster than color television was years ago. In the first 10 years, U.S. color TV penetration was only 5 percent versus over 50 percent household penetration of digital TV in the first decade.

At first glance, the transition offers consumers drastically improved picture and sound quality, but the underlying benefit is to America's first responders and our personal safety. This transition will free up valuable spectrum that will be reassigned to firefighters, police officers and other emergency personnel. This high-quality TV spectrum is efficient and will ensure first responders can better communicate during emergencies.

But in the end, consumers want to know: what does the digital transition mean to me?

Between now and February 17, 2009, all new television sets shipped to retailers will include a digital tuner capable of receiving over-the-air digital broadcasts. Cable and satellite households will be equipped by their service provider with everything they need for the transition, so consumers will see no change. And for those over-the-air households who haven't made the switch, there are plenty of choices and government-industry resources available to make the transition smoothly.

Free over-the-air television, broadcast with crystal-clear digital clarity, will be available to households that wish to receive it after the February 2009 analog shut-off. Consumers who already have a digital television will be able to receive these broadcasts via an antenna, cable or satellite.

Consumers who do not own a digital television, and do not subscribe to a multichannel video provider, can purchase from local retailers an inexpensive (as low as $60) and easy to install digital-to-analog converter box to connect to their analog sets. Even better, the government will have two $40 coupons per household available for these boxes beginning in January 2008 that will bring the cost down to around $20 per box.

Consumers will undoubtedly have questions as the transition date nears and the converter box program is rolled out, so consumer education will be paramount to ensure that the digital revolution reaches every American television household. A wide range of parties involved in the migration--consumer groups, broadcasters and cable companies, and the consumer electronics industry, among others--are working hard to ensure that consumers are fully informed about the exciting new world of digital television.

The education Web site has been developed by a coalition of business, trade and consumer groups with the core mission to ensure no consumer is left without broadcast television because of a lack of information about the transition.

Through these privately funded efforts and other campaigns run or funded by the federal government, the February 2009 end of analog broadcast television will find all consumers looking toward a bright digital future.