By now, a handful of Americans probably know that the FCC has mandated analog terrestrial television broadcasts cease in February 17, 2009, in favor of all-digital television broadcasting. (We use the word "handful" generously"—the government, broadcasters, and the media haven’t done a particularly good job of publicizing the transition.) The transition means that folks who rely on terrestrial television broadcasts will either have to switch to a television with a digital tuner, or purchase a converter box (the government will be subsidizing purchases in cases where it imposes a financial hardship) to continue using their old-style analog television; otherwise, the old-style analog TVs will go dark.
One factor that’s been undefined in the U.S. digital television transition has been cable services: the mandate to convert to digital broadcasting does not apply to analog television services offered over cable systems…but cable operators would dearly like to discontinue analog services in order to free up more bandwidth on their systems, as well as more effectively monitor what customers watch (and pass that information along to advertisers, of course). Now, the Federal Communications Commission has ruled (PDF) that cable subscribers with analog televisions must be able to view broadcast television through February of 2012.
Under the ruling, cable companies can either convert the digital standard definition signal to analog format for analog cable subscribers, or serve broadcast television in a standard definition digital format provided all subscribers have equipment to view that digital content. Smaller cable systems with a channel capacity of 552 MHz or less may apply for an exemption. However, the FCC maintained its requirement that cable systems carry high-definition broadcast signals in HD format, and that picture quality of broadcast television signals must be at least as good as any other programming carried on the cable system.
Of course, what the FCC is not mandating is that the cable companies make it painless for subscribers to stick with analog cable: within regulatory limits which vary between regions, cable companies may be able to make it increasingly uncomfortable for subscribers to stick with good old analog cable, including increasing prices, adding fees, changing subscriber agreements, and simply shutting off the signal in cases where the analog channels are present but not explicitly part of a service package. Given the way most cable operators conduct business, none of those scenarios would be surprising.
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