Fagstein has an excellent post on the end of analog TV signals in the US, and the same fate that will fall upon Canadians in 2011.
I say what I’m about to say as someone who enjoys watching my HDTV on a regular basis.
The switchover from analog to digital TV is one of the great hoodwinks of our time. It is a hoodwink on two fronts. First, we are sold on those flat screen TVs as inherently better than the old cathode ray tubes. Now, it’s true that CRTs take up tons of space, but in terms of things like color and image depth, a CRT of comparable specifications to a Plasma or LCD would do better in some ways (or at least compete). Of course, a CRT with a 42″ diagonal would eat up a good chunk of most Montreal living rooms. But the idea that CRT is a dead technology compared with LCD and Plasma is simply ludicrous. The “better” in the picture comes from the resolution, not the technology. In any event, this is one wing of the consumer electronics industry (TVs and monitors) following others (CD, DVD) that have figured out the best way to sell a lot of gear is to force everyone to upgrade. Sure you could buy a set-top box for $40 or whatever to upgrade your analog TV, but you’re already on your way to a new LCD. Why not step into the store and plop down your credit card? What’s that? You can’t? Well, in the US, the government will help you.
The spectrum reallocation, meanwhile, means another lost opportunity for reallocating the airwaves for the public good. The spectrum is a public resource, managed by the government, just like public lands. And yet it’s been given, or sold off, to commercial broadcasters in the US and Canada pretty freely. Canadians have done a better job of maintaining a strong public broadcaster (which would be sort of the equivalent of a public park except only professionals can play there), but the point still holds. Fagstein is right to say that the internet has largely replaced cable public access but consider the overall shift. Although the internet is governmentally regulated, it is not regulated as a resource in the same way. If all the ISPs in your neighborhood suddenly want to jack up prices beyond what you can afford, that’s the end of your internet. If they want to traffic shape or otherwise manage your bandwidth, your only recourse is another ISP, and if they ALL decide to do it, you are more or less stuck.
The thing about the electromagnetic spectrum is that it was socially shaped in such a way that what came over it was free or relatively inexpensive to users (I’m thinking of the UK’s receiver tax here). We are accustomed to praising the incredible variety and accessibility of contemporary media, but we should not forget the monthly cost. In 1970, your monthly communication bills would have included a bill for the telephone. You would own a TV or radio that you paid for, once, and watch whatever was on. Perhaps you would also subscribe to a newspaper or some magazines.
Now, our household pays out non-trivial monthly fees for telephone, cellular telephone, TV, and internet. And if we were motivated, we could even pay for radio (satellite). Of course we also subscribe to too many newspapers and magazines but such is the intellectual’s fate.
My point is that the freedoms of the so-called digital revolution come at a cost to consumers, starting with a cost that comes in the form of a monthly fee for things that could, should, or would have been considered public resources in another age.