What does the DTV Transition mean for New York City?

My latest column for Gotham Gazette is on the government-mandated transition to digital television (DTV). It takes you through all of the places where this process can go wrong: the coupons the government is handing out for the digital converter boxes, your TV, your antenna, the broadcaster, and the public education.

Since we published the article, one more snafu has come to light. Everyone I spoke to recommended getting a coupon and a converter and setting up your TV as soon as possible. However, the $40 coupons the government is offering expire 90 days from when they’re mailed. I don’t know why they put an expiration date on them.

It wouldn’t be too much of an issue except the Echostar converter box that is set to retail for $39.99 – the only hope a consumer has to avoid an out-of-pocket expense for this transition – won’t hit the market for another 4 months.

So if you act fast, you’ll have less choice of what kind of converter to purchase. But if you wait, you’ll have less time to fix any problem you have getting a digital picture on your TV.

One other part of the story that didn’t make it into the article but is worth considering is the impact the digital transition will have on tinkering and hobbyists. This came up in my interview with the engineer from WNYW. It was clear that he’d been tinkering with transmitters and electronics his whole life and he lamented the barrier that digital technology posed to anyone getting into that.

Digital signals either work or they don’t. Analog has a grey area that invites tweaking. Most of the digital technology is proprietary and built on secrets, while analog is right in front of you on the motherboard. It’s not easy to understand transistors and capacitors and math and physics, but if you can learn by poking it and assessing the feedback in a way that’s much harder to do with digital.

The WNYW engineer sounded almost wistful when he said that he never understood those Star Trek episodes where a society that had in its possession some advanced technology nevertheless slipped into a primitive state because they couldn’t figure out how to operate or repair the machinery. He always figured you could figure it out through tinkering. But now that he’s installing his station’s new digital transmitters, he sees how alien and impenetrable technology can be.

From a current-day consumer perspective, it’s most absurd that the government coupon and education programs would be so impenetrable. But there may also be a time when we lament not being able to tune a TV with a paper clip or build a radio with a soldering iron and grit.

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