After postponing the conversion twice to let the public catch up, the U.S. finally switched the airways from analog to digital last Friday, June 12. It's estimated that three million Americans woke up to find themselves without television reception, either neglecting to pick up a converter box allowing them to intercept the signals, or completely unaware that the changeover was going to take place. Or mistakenly assuming that their TVs are new enough to be compatible.
People can be forgiven for the lapse - ATSC DTV tuners were not mandated into televisions until 2005, although a lot of televisions included them far earlier than that. I have a Toshiba from 1999 that came with a digital tuner, and many models had them before that - a legacy of Asian manufacturers that have been making digital-ready sets since the '80s.
While it sucks to be one of those three million people (although they probably don't watch their sets much, because there have been commercials about the upcoming conversion for the past two years) the benefits for everyone else are huge. The digital picture is clearer, digital sound is better, and for everyone with a high definition television at home all the standard definition channels are going to come in crisper and clearer than before, whether you have cable or still get television through a set of rabbit ears.
Urban areas might even see a return to the days when every home had an aerial on the side of the house. If enough local channels are still broadcasting on the airwaves then it may not make sense to pay extra for cable, as those free channels will be coming in clearer than ever before.
But one of the real benefits may be in mobile technology. For years people in Japan, Korea and other Asian countries have used their cell phones to watch television. Now, with the move to digital television, there's no reason we can't pick up digital signals on phones, laptops and other portable devices. Archos (www.archos.com), for example, is releasing a new mini-tablet computer for North America that will run Windows 7 and comes with a built-in digital video broadcast tuner. This is a device I can actually see myself buying some day.
Canada is lagging the U.S. by almost two years on the conversion front. We're not scheduled to make the airwaves digital until Aug. 31, 2011, although many Canadians living in border towns will have to make the jump to a new converter box or new television sooner than later if they want to continue to watch U.S. channels.
According to the Industry Canada website, there are a few things Canadians need to know. First of all, your converter box has to be BETS-7 compatible to work with U.S. stations broadcasting in digital. If you're buying a television that's new or used the Industry Canada website at www.ic.gc.ca has a list of all ATSC-compatible televisions, as well as advice on how to purchase a new television.