Why is the FCC Mandating a Digital TV Switchover?

Many people know that the switch from analog to digital television is coming on June 12, 2009.   And many people know that the switch to all digital TV means that programs can be seen in higher quality high definition, with better picture and sound (if you have a high definition set and you are receiving a high definition signal through an over the air antenna, through satellite TV, or through digital cable).

But most people don’t know why the Federal Communications Commission and Congress mandated the digital switchover.  TV is becoming digital for a couple of reasons.

First, digital television can squeeze more information into less space.  TV (and radio and certain other forms of communication) is broadcast on a spectrum.  Part of the job of the Federal Communications Commission is to manage the spectrum.  Not only what TV stations and radio stations broadcast on which frequencies (so they don’t overlap), but also which frequencies are used for government, military, and rescue work.  Digital television, particularly high definition TV, squeezes much more information into the same swath of frequency spectrum.  A good analogy would be comparing analog TV to a videocassette and digital TV to a DVD.  The VHS videocassette of the film contains the movie.  The DVD version contains the film in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, director’s commentary, deleted scenes, and previews of other movies.  And the DVD takes up less space on your shelf! High definition television is similar to the DVD version of a movie — programs are in widescreen, a much higher resolution, and they’re broadcast in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. (NOTE: You will need a high definition TV and either digital cable, satellite TV, or an over the air digital TV antenna to enjoy high definition programming.)

This better use of space for digital television also means that broadcasters can engage in multiplexing, or broadcasting different digital TV signals on the same swatch of spectrum, allowing more digital TV choices.  You can see this now if you have a digital TV hookup with an over the air antenna (or through a digital TV converter box) — you might find your local NBC broadcaster offering a high definition channel of their regular programming on channel 4-1, a standard-definition of their programming on channel 4-2, and 24-hour weather on channel 4-3.

Second, because of the increased use of space, the FCC can take the portion of the spectrum previously used for analog TV broadcasts and return it for emergency and governmental work.  This means that the military, police, firefighters, and EMTs can upgrade their equipment to cutting-edge spread-spectrum communication devices, allowing them clearer communication without risk of interference or jamming.

Sound confusing?  It’s not.   If you want to know how you can view digital TV — even on your existing analog television, check out our digital television guide.

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