By Michael Rau
December 31, 2007
Here at the genesis of a new year, I think we're most inclined to contemplate the passage of time.
But what about the incessant march forward of technology?
I mention this because we're rapidly approaching a deadline that will affect many in varying ways. On Feb. 18, companies that have provided analog cell phone service will be allowed by law to begin shutting down those networks.
This date was decided upon by the FCC back in 2002, and frankly, affected industries have been preparing for the transition ever since. But as is often the case, while affected industries have done a fine job of preparing themselves, they've done a less-than-stellar job of preparing their customers.
There's an important object lesson to be learned, and it would be wise for consumers to learn it now as a deadline with far more impact is looming one that will touch almost everyone. More on that in a minute.
This February deadline will affect two basic groups of consumers. The first is the 1 million or so cell phone users (out of 250 million) who are still using analog handsets.
If you're a user of services from either Sprint/Nextel or T-Mobile, you're not affected. Neither of these companies has an analog network.
However, if you're a customer of Alltel, AT&T, or Verizon, and your phone is more than 3 or 4 years old, it's possible that you're on one of these companies' analog networks. If so, you should already have received a notice about the impending shutdown of your phone's network and instructions (and I would think some incentive) on getting digital service.
If, like me, you're really bad about reading all the detritus included in your bill, you may have missed it. With this in mind, all of these companies have detailed information on their Web sites about the shutdown and how to change your service.
There are some smaller companies particularly in rural areas that plan to maintain their analog networks for a while. The reason for this is that analog signals carry a far greater distance than digital ones, and in rural area with a limited number of cell towers, analog networks provide a wider range of coverage. But even these will disappear as these companies add towers to their networks.
There's also a sub-group of analog cell phone users who are exceptionally affected by this transition those with cars built before 2004 that are equipped with the OnStar service.
The OnStar system used by these vehicles operates on an analog network, and OnStar is shutting this down now (Jan. 1).
There also are some OnStar-equipped cars built up through 2006 that are using the analog network, but these can be upgraded with an inexpensive kit. The older cars cannot be upgraded.
I've talked to a couple of people locally who have older OnStar-equipped cars, and man, they're livid! I've also read about the possibility of a class-action suit on behalf of this group. I think they have a valid issue in pointing out that OnStar has known since 2002 that this transition was coming, yet chose to continue to equip cars with nonupgradeable systems for at least two more years.
The second major group of consumers affected are those with home alarm systems. Many of these systems use cell technology to maintain a line of communication with the monitoring company. As with the other affected industries, most older alarm systems use analog rather than digital networks for communications.
As with cell phone service, this should be fairly easy and painless to upgrade through your alarm service provider.
This brings us to the other deadline I mentioned earlier the one that affects us all.
In just a little over a year, over-the-airwaves analog television broadcasts will end. TVs not equipped with an ATSC digital tuner won't be able to receive television broadcasts. Period.
Are you ready?
As I wrote in a previous column, secondary providers such as cable and satellite companies are working on conversion systems that will likely allow you to continue to use your analog TVs in some limited fashion for the foreseeable future. And the Federal government has funded a successful effort to engineer and manufacture set-top converter boxes that'll cost about $40. This should, for the most part, grease the skids of the digital TV transition for most consumers.
As this deadline approaches, may I suggest looking at the analog cell service cut-off deadline as a dry run? Maybe if we learn from this rather sloppily handled transition, the changeover to all-digital television won't be as culturally traumatic as the risk implies.
No doubt, we here at the Daily Press will make every effort to provide you with everything you need to know about digital TV.
Ultimately though, it's up to you to be ready for the big change that's a-comin' in '09.
Michael Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send feedback or view past columns, go to http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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