Thursday, January 22, 2009

U.S. Digital TV Transition and Telecom Distribution

For those of us living in the United States, it has probably been hard to miss the recent publicity blitz on the FCC's move to switch all TV transmission to digital, which means millions of Americans who receive their television broadcast through free, analog transmission (you know, the bunny ears on those old tv sets?), will be forced to either buy new TVs or to get a hold of digital-converter boxes in order to continue receiving this feed.

The transition was originally set to take place at the first of the year, but shortages of converter boxes and the complete training of the federal money in place to help low-income families purchase the boxes forced the congress to reconsider the switch. Now congress is considering moving it back to June 12. I'm something of an advocate for telecom equality, as I established in a previous post on broadband access, and I think delaying the transition is a serious necessity for the sake of underprivileged Americans. For an illustration of how difficult the information about the transition has been to convey to those who still rely on analog signals, and then how difficult it has been for them to prepare for it, check out this September NPR story.

You can imagine what an easy issue it is to dismiss, especially in communities where the only valid service projects seem to concern basic living needs.

Luckily, I'm not alone in seeing this problem. On Monday I received this press release from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund.
Washington, DC – During the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund teamed with local partners in seven cities to reach help local residents prepare for the February 17 analog to digital television transition through service activities, community events, and volunteer outreach.

Local groups in Atlanta, GA; Detroit, MI; Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN; Portland, OR; San Antonio, TX; San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland CA; and Seattle-Tacoma, WA are holding coupon application and donation drives, conduct trainings about the converter box options and installation, and answer questions about the transition.

The DTV Transition will require millions of Americans to take action in order to maintain access to free over-the-air television for crucial emergency information and news about their communities. Many of the households affected include low-income families, elders, communities of color, and individuals with disabilities.
News and emergency information aside, having an affordable link into even popular culture becomes a real factor in education and in economic class. I think it's difficult to deny that advanced technology accessibility and education illustrates privilege in a capitalist society more than almost any resource. This fact might contribute to an impression that leftists are anti-technology, or that there is some direct correlation between technology utilization and a committment to a market economy. I don't think that has to be so. Most images of Utopia in the popular imagination might not include every citizen with a laptop and a digital tv, and likewise it's easy to think of images of distopia that do include technology. But communications technologies provide an unprecedented opportunity to mass-distribute information, and I don't think those benefits can be overstated.

It's nice to have an administration that cares at all about telecom equality for a change, but this is an issue that is still too quickly overlooked by social justice activists, and too quickly dismissed by their opponents.

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