The lights go out on February 17, 2009 - Embedded.com

The lights go out on February 17, 2009

As if the Y2K debacle wasn't Chicken Little enough, the real screaming in the United States will start February 17, 2009. That's the date that broadcast TV stations are commanded to shut off their NTSC analog transmissions and only broadcast digital signals.

This is fine and dandy for television makers that can sell the entire country new TVs, and can be explained as “necessary” to build sufficient demand to justify expensive and extensive equipment upgrades at the station from camera to tower, ultimately releasing RF spectrum from the old VHF and UHF frequencies for other uses. “The industry” decided this was best.

The change from black-and-white TV to color didn't require a mandate. Any viable technology should let the market decide when it will be adopted, not government mandates. Cellular phones have fought it out in the market–nobody banned the old 501 telephone set or ripped up the four 26-gauge wires going to every home and business.

So who cares? The non-rich are going to care–when they find out. Even the middle class will feel it. Barely 25% of Americans really know that the analog signals are being turned off in less than a year. They don't realize that the black-and-white 12-in. TV in the garage that brings the game to them while working on the car will just be black in a year, even though it's worked just fine since 1975. They probably don't understand all those 19-in. TVs in the kids' bedrooms will soon be dark. Oh, they may work if they're hooked up to cable that remains analog.

Washington has offered a $40 subsidy for a digital-to-analog signal converter, which may cover half the price of such a system (two subsidies are permitted per customer). But generally, all those old TVs will be headed to the trash. Their owners will be heading to the electronics store for replacements, only to find $500 ATSC digital sets rather than the $125 19-in. color analog sets they remember from a couple years ago. Someone's going to have a lot of explaining to do, and there's likely to be a deafening roar early in 2009. Not everybody has $500 to replace a lot of old TV sets.

At the 2008 CES, EchoStar, the satellite and Slingbox operator, proclaimed that they would make an analog converter available for $40. This offer is being made–selling the converter at a loss–to build goodwill with potential customers. LG/Zenith will offer a $60 converter.

I would like to see the FCC allow broadcasters to leave the analog signal active for as long as they want, as long as they also broadcast in digital. The little game of chicken would have had its effect anyway but wouldn't hurt those too poor or stubborn to throw away a perfectly good TV.

Tom Starnes keeps an eye on embedded processors and their applications as a consultant for Strategy Sanity and as an industry analyst for Objective Analysis and other independent market research firms. His 30 years in MPUs, MCUs, DSPs, and cores began at Motorola marketing the 68000, followed by a long stint at Dataquest. He can be reached at .

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