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The New Digital Divide

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I recently spent some time in a Kaiser hospital. As a cost-cutting measure (I assume) the televisions received only the broadcast channels. Having time on my hands, I got to watch a fair sampling of the broadcast programs in my area. I had noticed before that there are periods where virtually the only thing available on the broadcast channels was paid programming. However lying in the hospital, I was amazed at the relative lack of meaningful programs or information that was available the rest of the time. This has got to have an impact on those whose information is rooted in these channels. As most people already know, digital TV is heading our way. On February 18th, virtually all channels will switch from analog to digital - even for the free broadcast channels. People without cable or satellite service will either need a digital converter box (which they must buy), or a TV that is set up for digital. These issues raise a number of issues. I wondered what the demographics and opinions were of those folks who receive only broadcast signals - or even no signals at all. There doesn't seem to be anyone looking at that issue, so I have no answer. My guess on the demographics would be those who live in "remote" areas (outside of broadcast range) and having no cable infrastructure are divided between those who can afford satellite and those who cannot. Likewise, those areas without broadcast repeaters would be in a "dark" zone. Since virtually all homes in the U.S. have a television, those who receive only the analog broadcast channels are likely poor. The distribution of the poor is certainly not evenly divided across racial categories. These are also the people who are least likely to be able to afford a new digital TV, or to have the extra money to but a digital converter box - even with a $40 coupon from the government which they may not access anyway. We have all heard the discussions over the "digital divide." This was a question of access to computer technology, and then to the internet. Few talk about the digital divide any more, even though it is real and pertinent, and a significant aspect of social inequality. Now we face a new digital divide. This divide did not just start (as noted above regarding those who have only broadcast access); however, it is getting ready to expand dramatically. With the shift to digital only broadcasts, many will lose access to even the poor quality of information and programming that they already have. How many will lose access seems to be a slippery question. According to an article titled "The Analog Shutdown, for Better or for Worse," under analog there are 2.7 million households that do not have any reception (analog or digital). When analog goes away, that number is expected to increase to 5.6 million households. In other words, more than two times the current number of people without television access will be without access. However, according to a report on Wired News, the numbers are much higher. Citing information from Nielsen, currently about 14 million of households have only broadcast TV reception currently (13% of the 113 million television households). It seems likely that as economic pressures increase, people will drop their cable or satellite services. Since many of them will likely not purchase converter boxes, then the numbers of those with no access to television as an information source will likely increase dramatically. One thing seems likely, and that is more people are going to fall into the chasm of the digital divide. What effects this has on our nation now or in the future does not seem to be of great concern to many.
Side note for those who might be concerned about my health. I had a cardiac "event" and was placed in the hospital for testing, observation, and prescription change. I seem to be "stable" at this point and am recuperating and regaining my energy.
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Rowan Wolf is an activist and sociologist living in Oregon. She is the founder and principle author of Uncommon Thought Journal, and Editor in Chief of Cyrano's Journal Today.

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