Friday, February 03, 2006

What's the Frequency, Kenneth?

Today the House voted, narrowly, to go along with the 2009 end for analog television broadcasting. I'm not sure that the ramifications of this have really reached all corners of television-viewing America thus far, but as they do, I expect panic in the streets.

Okay, maybe not. But I do think that the more people think about this, the more they're going to be Very Concerned. I don't think most people have thought about the effects this will have on their everyday lives.

This means that, in 2009, any standard-definition television tuner currently in use will become effectively non-functional. Right now, people can connect an antenna or cable TV to the antenna input of their analog television, and they will receive signals. Some may be strong, some may be weak, but they will see television. That will not be the case in 2009. Those tuners are set to frequencies that will no longer carry television signals at that time. Unless viewers acquire a separate standalone digital tuner to accompany every analog tv, they will have to acquire a cable decoder for each set.

Currently, one monthly cable charge allows a household to hook up a large number of televisions at no additional cost. That won't be the case in 2009; each unit will most likely require a cable card or a cable box, and you can rest assured that the cable companies aren't going to give that away. The best we can hope for is that the government will require the cable companies to adopt an open standard before then that will allow viewers to buy a digital-to-analog converter.

And it's not just your televisions that aren't going to function in 3 years. Think about all those VCR's you have, and those DVD recorders, and those over-the-air Tivo units. They all have analog tuners, and there'll be nothing for them to tune into in 2009. Sure, the VCRs and DVD recorders will play back--and they can record signals that are input through their composite or component inputs--but they won't record over-the-air or cable broadcasts through their antenna inputs.

If you bought a high-def teevee, you're safe, though, right? Not really. If you were an early adopter, you most likely got a set that doesn't have HDCP, a form of copy protection that will be ubiquitous by 2009. And very likely, sets that don't have HDCP will blank out when a digital HDCP signal is input...

Congress is talking about a household credit for a digital-to-analog converter for households that need them--but considering Congress's affinity for income redistribution, you can rest assured this will become a needs-based plan targeting only lower income viewers, leaving the vast majority of households to fend for themselves.

The next year or three may be a great time to invest in electronics companies; there's going to be a boom market for new televisions, digital-tuner recording devices, etc.--most of which don't even exist yet.

And of course, you could just get satellite service from Dish or DirecTV, right? Well, yes--but bear in mind that the bulk of the units out there right now are not MPEG4 compatible, and the satellite providers are in the proces of moving all their high-def broadcasts (and most likely, the bulk of all the new channels they add) to MPEG4 only. So the millions of people who thought that signing up with a satellite service made them "bullet proof" to these changes are about to discover, sadly, that their equipment is now outmoded also. DirecTV implied initially that they would upgrade customers for free... but the ugly truth is, they're charging at least $99 per box for most customers to trade up, and they don't even have a digital MPEG4 Tivo-like unit right now, so you have no way of recording these new channels. (Not that you'd particularly want to--reports from those who have the early MPEG4 units indicate that the signal is crude, defect-laden, and quite unsatisfying... and that's in comparison to regular satellite high-def service, which already looks pretty lousy compared to cable high-def because the satellite companies are saving money by compressing signals and squeezing more channels onto each satellite.)

Yep, it's about to be a turbulent time for home video entertainment. And it's going to get a lot moreso as people really learn how these changes are going to affect them.

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