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Are we prepared for the DTV switch? Do we understand the bigger-picture impact?

By Richard Kubin on September 15, 2008

As most people in the United States are aware, February 17th, 2009 marks a landmark event in the history of broadcast media – the switch from analog to digital signal broadcast for ‘free’ television. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides the following explanation to the question “Why Is The Government Switching to Digital?”

  • "For improved public safety for everyone. The transition to digital will help police, fire, and other public safety departments to communicate more easily with each other during emergencies.
  • "For you, digital TV offers better picture and sound quality, as well as more channels and programming choices.”

Perhaps I am being a little skeptical, but I was not aware of any major breakdown in the communications capabilities of our emergency services – maybe this has been kept a secret to avoid widespread panic. As for the second point, it assumes that you will be replacing old analog TV sets with new digital sets to take advantage of the improvements, or at a minimum, acquiring an additional set-top “converter box.” I suspect that there are some additional reasons for the government mandating the change, which may or may not involve strong industry lobbying groups.

Don’t get me wrong, I am in favor of improved picture and sound quality, which I am fortunate enough to have already (including 1080p resolution with full surround sound where available) through exorbitant monthly fees from my local cable provider. Extending these improvements to all viewers is a noble cause, provided they can afford the new equipment. To help compensate, the FCC is providing $40 coupons to go towards the price of the converter box ($40-$70 retail) to any household that requests one. However, this just allows you to watch the new digital broadcast through the same old TV set – not really much of an improvement.

So let’s dig a little deeper into the potential environmental impacts. For those without the disposable income to purchase a digital TV, they will now be required to add a converter box. The joint FCC/EPA fact sheet on DTV and recycling recommends the following: “When buying a digital-to-analog converter box, look for one with the ENERGY STAR label. Converter boxes that are ENERGY STAR-qualified use less energy than conventional converter boxes. If all of the digital-to-analog converter boxes sold in the U.S. met the ENERGY STAR specification, we would save 823 million kilowatt-hours every year.”

Two observations spring to mind:

  1. If the potential energy savings of ENERGY STAR models is that high, then the overall additional energy requirements for adding these boxes is a multiple of that number.
  2. Why wouldn’t the government require that all converter boxes for sale in the US meet ENERGY STAR ratings?

So let’s look at the situation for those who will replace their TV sets with new digital versions. On the plus side, the newer LCD sets do use less energy. But what happens to all of the useless analog tube sets? One might expect that the EPA would establish a well organized, efficient and environmentally friendly US-wide recycling scheme to support the transition. From what I can tell, that is not the case. While they do recommend recycling and offer three links for more information (Earth 911, National Recycling Coalition, My Green Electronics), they also provide the following disclaimer: “Identifying resources and locations for electronics recycling does not constitute EPA’s endorsement of the services.”

When I checked options on Earth 911 for TV recycling options in San Francisco I got a significant number of hits, but at least 20% of them were for Goodwill or Salvation Army. Something tells me that they are not likely to want the burden of dealing with many tons of useless tube TVs. As we know, there are varying degrees of conscientiousness within the e-waste recycling industry – chances are that many will end up in containers sent off to Asia for less than health-friendly recycling.

Then there are all of the handheld and small battery-powered analog sets that would fit very easily in the garbage can.

The point I would like to leave you with is that while it may be difficult to plan for forced obsolescence on this scale, it is not as though we didn’t know it was coming. I think that the FCC and EPA could be taking a more proactive role. But then I guess the entities that will benefit most (certain electronics manufacturers, retail stores and cable/satellite companies) provide much of the ad revenue to the networks, which in turn may or may not fund the lobbyists and ‘special interest groups’ in Washington.