TCS Daily

The Time Is Now?

By Duane D. Freese - August 1, 2005 12:00 AM

Never being one to jump on a bandwagon early, I waited until June of this year to join the big leap into digital television, buying a high definition TV set as a present from my wife for Father's Day.

I figured it couldn't have been too early. After all, Congress mandated back in 1996 as part of the Telecommunications Act that the transition to digital television was to be finished by Dec. 31, 2006. The Federal Communications Commission also had set standards for new TVs to be capable of receiving digital signals, beginning with the large screens in 2004 and mid-size screens this year. And I'd even read somewhere that the FCC was easing the transition by promoting plug and play technology between television makers and cable companies - integrating their products so that I might even eliminate one of my three remote controls.

Besides, I'd just seen an NBA playoff game on an HDTV, so I simply had to have one.

Unfortunately, things are still a little out of focus. Not with the TV. It's great, complete with 1080i, 720p, 3000:1 contrast ratio on an LCD screen. It's the peripherals that are the problem.

My TV has every kind of inlet on the back of it - DVI, HDMI, component, S-video, composite and, of course, a cable input. Why? Well, the place I bought my TV told me I'd need to have a good set of cables to hook my stuff up, and sold me on an HDMI cable ($199) and a set of good Monster component cables ($100). The component would go to my DVD, the HDMI to my new cable box.

New cable box? Yes. While I had digital cable already, it turns out that hooking digital to an HDTV won't get you HDTV pictures. For that, you need a new, more expensive set top box from the cable company.

So, much for cable/television integration, something I would have known had I not missed Peter Grant's story, "Cable, Meet TV. TV, Meet Cable" in the May 25 Wall Street Journal. TV set makers and cable guys are still fighting it out about interconnecting. Cable cards the cable guys were to provide TV guys to allow digital connection don't seem to work. And the incentive for cable companies to make sure they work by requiring them to use the cards themselves in their cable boxes has been postponed - from January of this year to July 2007.

Bottom line for me: $10.49 a month for an HDTV cable box (up from $5.49 for just a digital TV box), plus $199 for an HDMI chord.

But that's only the start.

It aint easy, it ain't easy

When I got home, I not only discovered that I didn't have plug and play, I also didn't have component outlets on my DVD player. I hadn't noticed that before because my old TV was analog and used composite cables.

So I spent a day looking things up on the Internet, only again to find out that I was farther ahead of the digital curve than I'd thought.

It turns out that DVDs aren't HD. And they won't be until December of this year. That's when a battle royal is expected between two consortiums - one led by Sony and one by Toshiba and their Blu-ray and HD-DVDs, with a fast closer in the Japanese firm Optware drawing up from behind.

No sense, I figured, buying the most expensive DVD player with 720 progressive scan matching my HDTV, I settled upon a much cheaper DVD/VCR player at 480p that accomplishes the task of giving me a digital picture through a technique called reverse pulldown and "line doubling." It gives a good picture, and I used it a lot waiting for our HDTV cable.

Get It In Writing

There is one thing I have decided I need to do from now on in dealing with my cable company. Get everything in writing. An e-mail would do.

I made an appointment with my cable company to get my HDTV box and have it split a line to my old TV now in my kitchen-dining area.

But when my cable contractor arrived a week later, he brought up a box that looked like my old digital one, along with some component cables. The HDMI cable I'd bought wouldn't connect to it. "They're always changing the connections," he airily said.

Then, when I told him that I'd already taken my old TV to the dining area to install, he told me, "That's not on my work order. And I can't do anything not on my work order."

So, as he proceeded to finish connecting the TV set to the cable box with component cable, I called the cable company to set up another appointment for another installation. As I was on hold, he flipped through the channels showing me that it worked, and had me sign for the new box.

Never sign anything when you are distracted. For as he raced away, I finally got a hold of a customer service representative, and while flipping through the channels myself discovered that if this was HDTV it was awful -- way below grade of my non-HD-DVD.

I spent most of my phone call trying to make it better - playing with the dual remotes, unplugging and replugging the box at the customer service guy's suggestion. And it still ended up - like Meg Ryan with her cold in You've Got Mail - "fuzzy." So, I had to set two appointments - one in a couple days to get a new cable box and another to hook up my other TV. Oh, how I only wished the customer rep had asked me: "Would you like to try our cable modem service?"

Nothing From Nothing Gets Nothing

It did get fixed. Well, sort of. I ended up getting another cable box on Sunday for which I could use a DVI to HDMI cable plus component audio connection. Monster had one of those for $99. So I saved $100, right?

But I wonder why. Why do I need all these cables? Why do I have to have so many remote controls - or spend another $250 to get a "monster" programmable remote to replace them all?

And why is the DTV revolution taking so long and being so difficult? After all, the city of Berlin - a former East German city - took only 18 months to accomplish the task, not 10 years.

DTV is supposed to be not merely prettier pictures and better sound but the next big step toward a more competitive, high-speed, information-rich society

Taxpayers would benefit from the move to DTV by $10 billion to $30 billion from the sale of the spectrum that the broadcasters are now sitting on.

The economy would benefit from a boost in wireless services estimated to amount to at least $25 billion a year. Rural homes and communities would have competitors to deliver wireless broadband - WiFi --for data services at about half the cost it does to deliver those services today.

Public safety would also benefit from a portion of that spectrum with its ability to penetrate walls over long distances going to emergency services. As Sen. John McCain, who has introduced legislation to get the transition moving again, "Inside the Twin Towers they were unable to receive evacuation orders. That alone should compel us to act."

But it is going haltingly. And the reason is: Too many people - consumers and business - not only have a lot invested in the old analog technology in this country but a lot given to them for free that they don't want to give up.

Broadcasters were given television spectrum in return for public service requirements. To transit to digital, they were given even more spectrum. And unfortunately, rather than a hard date for turning it back they were given a soft one. The Dec. 31, 2006, deadline applies only in markets where more than 85 percent of households are able to view digital broadcasts. And in the USA today, there are 21 million households just over 15% of the national market that don't connect to cable or satellite or have digital sets.

And there is no rush on the part of the broadcasters or those households to do so, no matter what advantage society reaps from going digital. "The first rule Congress must abide by is do no harm to consumers," intones Gene Kimmelman, public policy director for Consumers Union. "We can only support a hard date transition if the costs are not borne by consumers who have done nothing wrong and just want their TVs to work."

So they'll have to be bought off.

Broadcasters on July 12 said they would support a date certain - for 2009 -- to transition digital, but only if their needs are met. That, will require some form of requirement on cable and satellite companies to carry their channels, so-called must carry provisions.

And cable- and satellite-less households will have to get a converter box with - what else? -- a remote control. Legislators already have proposals drawn up doling out from $240 million to $3 billion to get them boxes for their sets.

All I can say is that I, and likely millions of other cable customers with HDTV, would gladly donate our cable boxes and remotes to the cause for a direct feed.

After all, as a speech by former FCC chairman Michael Powell put it three years ago: "Digital Television: The Time Is Now." Too bad the country didn't get it in writing.


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