Until now, the phrase “digital divide” has been used to describe the difference between those with home computers and easy access to the Internet and those without. But what about people without television? As the major broadcasters switch from using analog to digital signals this February, activists warn the digital divide may take on a new meaning, leaving thousands of New York City’s most vulnerable with blank TVs.

Several digital developments have evolved in recent months to spell change for people’s relationship with their gadgets. Looming large among them is the February 17 deadline, required by law, for all major television networks to broadcast in digital only. In addition to providing sharper images and better sound, the use of digital signals will free up segments of the airwaves for other uses, such as broadband Internet (see below for more on this). However, anyone with an analog television who uses rabbit-ears or a rooftop antenna rather than a pay service like cable (see specifications in detail here), will find themselves staring at a screen full of snow. Nationwide roughly 21 million people rely on analog televisions, a group that disproportionately includes the poor, minorities, senior citizens and the disabled.   

The federal government has taken steps to address this potential problem. In addition to launching an education campaign, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) – a bureau of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce – has made coupons available for purchasing converter boxes that allow analog televisions to receive digital signals. City agencies have joined the education effort, whether including notices in public housing newsletters or ensuring that electronics stores notify their customers that analog televisions will soon require converters to work properly.

Activists, however, are concerned that the message will not be heard by all who need it. According to Mark Lloyd, a vice president at the D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the $5 million made available by congress for the NTIA to conduct consumer education was far too little. Both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and NTIA, Lloyd said, “have done a good job of communicating with vulnerable populations, whether these are the elderly, disabled, immigrants, or people working two jobs, with the money they have. But they have not been given enough for this very complicated transition,” he said. According to a recent Nielsen report, nearly 4 percent of New York City households are completely unready for the transition.

Thomas Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services, is also concerned that New York’s seniors may be missing the message. “TV is more than entertainment when you’re 75 or 80,” he said. “For isolated, low-income seniors, TV provides the sounds of a voice and images that carry them through the day. If it goes dark, that will be a real blow.” He also points out that TV is an important source of information for many seniors, and that according to a New York Academy of Medicine report, lack of access to information is one of the top problems facing New York’s elderly. Back in May, Kamber’s organization led one information session about the digital transition at a Staten Island senior center, but was unable to hold additional sessions when 80 percent of OATS’ City Council funding was cut over the summer.

Jimmy Flynn, a salesman at a Flatbush P.C. Richards & Son, which sells televisions and other electronics, has noticed that some of his elderly customers don’t grasp how the digital transition could affect them. He counsels people to buy digital televisions, but has sold a few analogs to seniors over the past year when they didn’t follow his advice. “Some older folks don’t understand the new process,” he said.

Putting the web into "white spaces"

Earlier this month the five-member FCC voted unanimously to open up unused portions of the television spectrum, or “white spaces,” for public use. The availability of these white spaces, according to wireless experts, could make broadband Internet – i.e. the fast kind – cheaper and more widely available within a few years, and help to bridge the digital divide.

Television spectrum including white spaces has been largely controlled by major television broadcasters, with white spaces serving as buffers between channels to prevent interference. With the switch from analog to digital broadcasting coming early next year, however, the FCC has decided that the buffers are no longer necessary. On Nov. 4, the FCC voted unanimously to free them up.

“White spaces have the potential to connect tens of millions of Americans now off the grid, either because they don’t have the necessary infrastructure in their area or they can’t afford it,” said Timothy Karr, campaign director at the national media reform organization Free Press. He pointed out that in New York City, white spaces account for one-fifth of the public airwaves.

Although no Internet devices on the market make use of white spaces, technology companies from Motorola to Google are lined up to create a new generation of hand-held, wireless devices able to access the Internet wherever public airwaves are available (which means pretty much everywhere). Current wireless devices, on the other hand, such as Apple iPhones, rely on already existing proprietary networks like AT&T or SprintNextel to connect to the Internet, rather than the new spectrum that will be opened up by white spaces. “We’re talking about a platform for innovation,” said Joshua Breitbart, policy director for People’s Production House, a local media education and activism group. He said that such devices would make access to the Internet cheaper, since a wireless infrastructure is relatively low cost. Internet prices are currently inflated due to a lack of competition, Breitbart said: “Broadband access is now a duopoly” locally, comprised of Time Warner Cable and Verizon DSL in some areas of the city, and Verizon and Cablevision in others.

Breitbart also argues that mobile, cell phone-like white space Internet devices could go a long way toward connecting more minorities to the web. Citing research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, he points out that when it comes to who is using cell phones, the technology divide is much less pronounced. It appears that Latinos and African-Americans may be more likely to access the Internet through new portable devices than using currently available technologies. “People want access to the Internet through mobile devices,” he said. “It’s a more meaningful alternative for a lot of people.”