It's D(tv) Day: Could Rural Get Its TV Back?

There was delay, but alas it's Dtv Day and television stations across the land are killing analog signals. But if you live anywhere like me, most television stations began broadcasting exclusively with a digital signal before today and so, as already discussed by Brian Depew in his post Crystal Clear TV, Unless You Live Too Far Away, it is not only a weary time for TV viewers today but has been for those of us out in the great wilds of rural America. (And who really cares? There are only 60 million of us living in rural America.)

FCC efforts to inform the public or not, five to ten million people will be left without television today because of inadequate outdoor antennas or the lack of satellite or cable service according to a press release from DTV Across America. The gut reaction tends to be, "it's just television." Yet this is a huge deal. The people that will be adversely affected are rural and poor populations. Aside from serving as an affordable form of entertainment, television disseminates important information concerning public safety, health, and security.

But let me quit fretting for moment and concern my mind with some alternatives to procuring television content the old fashioned way. Solutions are beginning to bubble up to the surface via the time-suck cousin of television, the Internet. And, yes, the internet, even for rural folks may be the answer, though only 38 percent of rural homes have broadband internet, according to a study by the Pew Research Center's Internet and the American Life project. This is well behind the 57 percent of urban and 60 percent of suburban households that have access. But let's just suppose the acting FCC chairman Michael J. Copps comments that rural broadband is to be a top priority will translate into a substantive improvement. (Click here for the FCC report, Bringing Broadband to Rural America.) Also, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocates $7.2 billion for broadband grants, loans and loan guarantees to be administered by the Agriculture and Commerce departments.  The law necessitates a national plan for broadband be submitted to Congress by February 2010 as well.

None of this is to mention the development of broadband deployment methods growing out of the availability of the now vacated TV white space, the 700 MHz spectrum of analog television. The Dtv transfer actually creates an occasion for the rural-broadband-challenge (sounds like the title of a reality TV show) to be overcome. Internet giant Google stated in its FCC exparte filing that, "TV white spaces can provide uniquely low-cost mobile broadband coverage for all Americans." So confident in the potential of this broadband deployment,  Google went on to state that, "In the context of TV white space, consumers will be able to enjoy robust access to the Internet, including the ability to download and utilize any lawful applications or content that is desired." Any lawful content, eh?

But any who, let's just get back to the serious business of TV and assume all those who had their TV's go dark today can get broadband internet. (Law & Order may be working on another spin-off and I shall not miss it.) What are the options for television content? Quite a few actually. In the last few years or so, consumers have been increasing turning to, I'd characterize it as more clamoring for free, legal entertainment on the internet. All kinds of amazing sites offer TV and TV-like programming. No longer are you stuck with only YouTube.com and amateurs videos. Sites like TV.com and Hulu.com (which is owned by NBC Universal, News Corp. and Providence Equity Partners) are offering both original content and content from partners like ABC, Bravo, Fox, MGM, NBC, USA Network, and Warner Brothers among others. (Just to be clear, "free" does mean "limited commercial interruptions by advertisers.)

But perhaps one isn't inclined to sit in front of one's computer. Me neither. That's why I got the Roku digital media player that hooks up to your TV and then to your internet to stream content from Netflix.com and Amazon.com. Be forewarned that the content is still a bit limited and a Netflix subscription or purchase from Amazon is required, but new content partners and 10 new channels are to launch before the end of 2009. Nonetheless, Roku isn't the only player. Other similar options are available too, like the Apple TV, Vudu, and Boxee.

"Promising," you think. "I can figure out this web stuff, but Grandma can't and she loves her soaps."Touch&eacute. It's the exact reason you should help out the old lady and take her gifts of ugly sweaters with a smile. Online television is still the game of the web savvy and regular TV still reigns king as far as ease and quality of content. Yet, television online offers a solution. There's only room for growth and improvement in this arena. This coupled with the possible widespread availability of broadband internet in rural areas in the next few years could give rise not to TV access equivalent to that lost during the switch from the analog to the digital signal, but access to more television-- a lot more... probably with much cooler stuff.

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