U.S. technology infrastructure will take a giant leap forward this February when the congressionally mandated conversion to all-digital television broadcasting takes effect. But there is disagreement over consumer and industry preparedness for the upcoming deadline. How many will be left with a blank TV screen come February?

There are many key players investing time and money into this project, including local, state and federal government, consumers and the telecommunications industry. Congress, the FCC, and the Department of Commerce are spearheading the bulk of the financial costs and organizing industry stakeholders.

In 1996, Congress offered televisions stations additional channels to begin digital broadcasting. Shortly thereafter, Congress mandated that all full-power televisions stations would be required to end broadcasting in analog and switch to digital by February 17, 2009. The FCC has already auctioned a portion of analog spectrum to companies interested providing advanced wireless services and is working to auction additional spectrum to a company interested in managing a public safety communications network.

Efforts are bring made to help make the transition easier. Consumers without cable television or televisions equipped with digital tuners will be required to purchase a digital-to-analog converter box. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a branch of the Department of Commerce, is administering a Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program, allowing each U.S. household to receive two converter box coupons worth $40 each. Consumers can request coupons through the NTIA and redeem starting in January 2009 at participating electronics retailers within 90 days of coupon issuance for around $40 to $70 per box.

The switch to digital television is essential for U.S. technology infrastructure and economic competitiveness. It will clear airways for safety communications and allow broadcast companies to purchase broadcast space, known as channels, through the auction of broadband spectrum. These channels may be used for the development of advanced wireless services. With digital programming, consumers will benefit from higher quality visual and audio broadcasts and a broadening of consumer choice through multicasting, which is the process by which a broadcasting station can provide several programs at the same time through one spectrum channel through the comparative compactness of digital signals.

But is the United States prepared for this digital switch? Fortunately, the transfer has in fact already occurred for a small population of Americans.

Residents of Wilmington, North Carolina, have switched to digital television ahead of the rest of the country, allowing the FCC an opportunity to test the success of the program. The transition took place on Monday, September 8, 2008 and Wilmington residents reported few difficulties with the switch, according to PC Magazine and Forbes. The FCC fielded calls from less than one percent of residents in Wilmington who had not known about the switchover.

Although the percentage of call-ins was quite low in the Wilmington, the FCC is aware that a one percent call-in rate in the United States as a whole could add up to half a million calls. LBJ School graduate Felice Trirogoff wrote a policy report on the digital switchover in which she highlighted her concerns regarding the overall disjointed marketing strategy that could cause difficulties for vulnerable populations, such as low-income families, low-English proficiency populations, and the elderly. Approximately 47 million households in the U.S. depend on analog signals.

In addition to problems faced by consumers, broadcasting stations may feel a financial pinch as they attempt to upgrade. Most large, corporate stations and local stations located in wealthy urban areas have already updated their equipment, but as Trirogoff points out, there are still some vulnerable local stations that will struggle to pay for the upgrades necessary to prepare them for digital broadcasting. The U.S. government will need to consider providing some financial assistance to smaller or low-power broadcasting stations lagging behind with equipment upgrades.

Despite concerns about preparedness, the digital conversion is crucial for the U.S. Industry stakeholders, the FCC, and NTIA will need to carefully monitor reports on consumer and local broadcasting station preparedness. The United States has not previously experienced such a massive technology shift, but it is due time that more emphasis be placed on increasing infrastructure development in the technology industry. Indeed, success will be measured in part on the effectiveness of the public education campaign and the industry readiness. Success should also be measured on how well such national infrastructure campaigns maintain our competitive advantage in the global economy.

Jamie McAllister

Jamie McAllister is a first-year public affairs student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. She has spent several years working in the U.S. and abroad on development and education. Her interests range from technology and education policy to East Asian affairs and transition to democracy.