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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

The digital dilemma: Disappearance of analog signals just a year away

Better TV is coming, but are you ready for it?
Behind the placid pictures, a made-for-TV storm is looming.

Since the first days of television, the method of beaming pictures into our living rooms hasn’t changed much. But on Feb. 17, 2009, television stations across the country will hit the off button on this time-tested technology and switch to new transmitters, sending computerized digital signals through the air.

When the change comes, the estimated 30 million televisions that use traditional antennas will go to snow without a digital converter box. The cable industry is spending $200 million to educate customers, and Congress has set aside $1.5 billion to help subsidize the purchase of converter boxes.

Still, half of American viewers don’t know the storm is coming, according to a poll conducted last month by the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing. For the 1 in 5 American households that still use rabbit ears or antennas on the roof, “the day of reckoning is coming,” said Barry Umansky, a communications professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

Not enough spectrum for all those signals
The switch to all-digital television, and a similar switch in the wireless communications industry, is partly a repercussion of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when police and fire communications channels were clogged by too much traffic.

The Federal Communications Commission first ordered the eventual transition in 1996, but Congress didn’t set a deadline until the the 9/11 Commission reported that first-responder systems needed a major upgrade.

The problem, said Umansky, a longtime broadcast industry lawyer, is that “America’s seemingly wide-open skies are chock full of radio signals, and there just aren’t enough frequencies for all the people who need to use them.”

By taking back the analog frequencies, the government will “allow the nation’s airwaves to be used by firefighters, police and other first responders to help the nation when there might be a natural or manmade disaster,” said Todd Sedmak, communications director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Digital Dilemma: Intellectual Property

Synopsis and Views on the Study by the National Academies' Committee on Intellectual Property Rights and the Emerging Information Infrastructure.

Borrowing a library book, photocopying a periodical article, or photographing a painting is a simple act. Vast information is available with almost no out-of-pocket cost. Such access to information has played a central role in American education and civic life from the time of Thomas Jefferson, who believed in the crucial role that knowledge and an educated populace play in making democracy work. However, permission to borrow, copy, and photograph depends on subtle, surprisingly complex and, at times, conflicting elements of law, public policy, economics, and technology, elements that seem to be balanced today.

The laws about copying information have induced relatively little litigation--relatively little compared to litigation associated with tangible property--partly because paper and other physical media are difficult or expensive to copy accurately, distribute widely, or incorporate in new works. In contrast, digital information is copied inexpensively, can be sent anywhere in the world with a few keystrokes, reproduced faithfully down to the last bit, and embedded in new works seamlessly. These changes threaten the balance.

Publishers and authors fear that the compensated market for a new work will be exhausted with very few copies. Some academics fear that attempts to preserve the marketplace will lead to access barriers to society's intellectual and cultural heritage. A few people fear that, with an increasing fraction of the information available mainly in digital form, the historically valuable portions will not be saved for future generations.

Thus the digital dilemma is that the same technology that is making more current information available more quickly and completely also has the potential to demolish a careful balancing of public good and private interest that has emerged from the evolution of IP law started by the U.S. Constitution. The public good is the broad availability of information anchored by the constitutional mandate to promote the "progress of science and the useful arts"; the private interest is the time-limited monopoly given to a contributor to that progress. The challenge is to strike and maintain a balance, offering enough to motivate authors, inventors, and publishers, but not so much as to threaten important public policy goals, such as promotion of education and scholarship.

The Committee on Intellectual Property Rights and the Emerging Information Infrastructure believes that fundamental change is afoot. Society needs to ask whether the existing mechanisms still work, and if not, what should be done. Test cases are now the stuff of daily news, e.g., the upheaval in music distribution caused by digital recording in the MP3 format. However the committee believes that society needs to look further out than today's crisis, try to understand the nature of the changes taking place, and determine as best it can what their consequences might be, what it would wish them to be, and how it might steer toward fulfilling the promise and avoiding the perils. Stimulating that long-range exploration has been the purpose of its report.

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