Television stations across the country will shut off their conventional signals today, leaving only their digital channels on the air. This development can't come as a surprise to viewers old enough to own the set they're watching -- digital TV transmissions started more than a decade ago, and broadcasters have been trumpeting the end of analog TV for nearly a year. Several hundred have already made the switch. Nevertheless, Nielsen surveys suggest that hundreds of thousands of Angelenos and millions of others across the country who rely on over-the-air TV will be caught unprepared for the change.
Given television's central role in conveying news and emergency information, it's not a good thing when viewers' screens are darkened by technological change. But the benefits of the switch to digital are important enough to get on with it, even though local agencies and volunteer groups will be left scrambling to help the stragglers. The four-month delay that Congress imposed in February gave federal officials time to line up resources across the country to help those who can't manage the change on their own, and to make it easy to find help by phone (1-888-CALL-FCC) or online ( www.dtv.gov).
The analog cutoff isn't the end of the digital transition, however. Still to come are new digital services that use airwaves the broadcasters are vacating, including improved communications networks for public safety and wireless data offerings. These benefits are as significant to the public as the high-definition video and extra programming on many digital TV channels. The Federal Communications Commission also has a number of loose ends to tie up, including the question of how broadcasters fulfill their public-interest obligations in the digital era.