The Digital Transition and a Looming Environmental Crisis

As most people now realize, come February of 2009 many US televisions will no longer be able to deliver the majority of network programming because they are designed to accept an analog, rather than digital, signal.

Photo: gothopotam, Creative Commons, Flickr

What’s the difference? Analog converts signals into bandwidth-hogging electronic pulses whose marching orders sometimes get scrambled before they reach the television. Digital uses a binary formula, just like a computer, converting signals into a series of zeros and ones, which march in precise formation through electronic space. If this is too confusing, think of analog as the French army, and digital as the German army.

Why are we making the switch? The reasons are complex and begin with the argument that analog signals are data-limited, while digital are not. Digital transmission, in addition to being quantitatively larger, is also clearer at the receiving end. Manufacturers say you won’t get the distortion and fuzziness of analog signals. More important, brag advertisers, digital TV won’t be limited to video and audio, but will become a truly interactive experience.

This is a correct but specious argument. The proponents of this move aren’t consumers but the consumer electronics industry itself, and the bill – passed in 2005 (and signed in 2006) for implementation in 2009 – is what commentator George Wills calls the “No Couch Potato Left Behind."

How is it going to happen? In 1996, Congress gave every broadcast TV station an additional channel so that they could begin broadcasting digital content while maintaining their analog broadcasts. Think of this as a practice march. In February of 2009, broadcasters will again be reduced to a single bandwidth, with the intervening 15 years providing enough practice to achieve something like expertise, if not perfection.

At that time, or sometime shortly thereafter, critics suspect that the government will begin selling off the now redundant analog space to private telecommunications companies. In fact, this has already begun. Companies like Google charge that, without a comprehensive definition of the new "open access" rules – preferably ones that mandate affordable prices for all – established (wireless) companies who win licenses will hog the whole bandwidth and restrict consumer choices.

In the future, if TV broadcasters want to expand or enhance their programming, they will have to find a way to squeeze more 0s and 1s into the same space. Because future broadcasts are digital, the effects will be subtle, up to a point. Digital is wide-space, but not infinite space. They don’t call it bandwidth for nothing.

But I’m getting off-topic here, since my real concern is the environmental impact of the transition. The 2005 bill provides $40 for owners to buy an analog-to-digital set-top box. This unit costs between $50 and $70, so the financial hardship won’t be great. Unfortunately, this is the same session of Congress that simultaneously voted down raising food stamp limits.

More importantly, the Act does not address the disposal of old TVs, whose wholesale dumping will impact places like India and China, where dismantling and salvage operations dump tons of lead, cadmium, mercury, chromium, beryllium, arsenic, and flame retardants like PBDEs into the environment. This – letting the world clean up our electronic trash – is one of the untold horror stories of the 21st century.

We are in an undeclared recession, so many Americans may go the converter route. Still, the number of older TVs in the country makes it likely that at least a third will be replaced, possibly with stimulus checks. In other words, of the estimated 70 million TVs in the country relying on over-the-air signals, a minimum of 23 million (and an estimated maximum of 80 million) are likely to end up either in local landfills or in the backyards of Chinese too poor to find other work.

Of all TV manufacturers, only Sony (SNE – $39.47) has set up a comprehensive program of recycling sites to address this issue. I don’t mean one or two per state, either, articles to the contrary. Here in Minnesota there are 21.

The rest of the manufacturers, represented by the Electronics Manufacturers Coalition for Responsible Recycling (led by Panasonic, Sharp and Phillips) have spent most of their energies fighting against the more stringent producer responsibility laws already passed in nine states. More than two dozen other states have introduced similar legislation, yet so far no manufacturer other than Sony has taken up the challenge to any effective degree.

If you plan to greet the Great Digital Divide next year by buying a new television, please consider a Sony. American corporations need to learn that “green” is not simply a good marketing tool, but the best way to go for all of us. (Providing, of course, that it’s not on the order of the above-mentioned group’s website, which is more like greenwashing than the "true green" conservation-conscious Americans have in mind.)

Also encourage your congressional representative to ratify the Basel Convention, a 100-member organization of countries dealing with the rising problem of electronic waste and other hazardous disposal issues.

If you’re not considering buying new and don’t want to pay for a converter, forget the whole TV issue and think instead about taking an adult education course, starting a hobby, teaching your kids how to handle money, or visiting the library. Your life will be richer, as will the lives of those around you, and the 230,000,000 kilowatt hours the country saves every month will eliminate the need to buy oil from Iran or drill for it in our own pristine wildernesses.

Disclosure: I don’t own consumer electronics stock.

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