Forget the Analog Conversion: How the Digital Cable Conversion Affects You

If you’ve watched TV, listened to the radio, or driven past a billboard in the last six months, you hopefully know that analog broadcast signals were turned off today, and you now need a digital converter or digital TV to receive television signals over the air. You were probably assured that you didn’t need to do anything if you were a cable or satellite subscriber.

Oops. I learned on NPR last night that some cable subscribers will lose channels following the conversion, or may have lost them already. Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Digital Cable Conversion
At the same time that analog broadcasters are switching to digital, so are many cable companies. In most areas, this happened long ago. Cable companies are doing this so they can offer more services in the bandwidth formerly occupied by those analog signals. Unfortunately, they’re simply removing some old channels you used to receive for free, like the second PBS channel or the public access/PEG access (Public, Educational, and Governmental) channels.

Why It Matters to You
Most people won’t notice the loss of these channels. I used to have three PBS channels and was cut back to two several years ago. I may be down to one now, but I don’t mind. I don’t really need more than one.

I also don’t frequently watch public access TV, but you might if you tend to watch City Council meetings or live in an area at risk for “snow days.” When school is cancelled in my region, it’s usually due to an earthquake, and every station is covering that. However, school closures in other regions are usually announced on public access TV. If you live in a snow region, you should check now to make sure you still receive those channels.

What to Do if Channels Are Missing
First, call the cable company to make sure the channel is gone. It could just be out for an unrelated reason. If it’s gone, you may have to buy a digital cable converter to regain those channels, or rent one for an additional fee. You may also have to upgrade to a higher package to get those channels that were once free. Personally, I find the idea of asking people to pay for public access channels abhorrent, but so far the cable companies are getting away with it.

If the channels are no longer free, the cable company may offer you the equipment free for a year, but you’ll have to pay for it eventually unless your city council or state legislature takes up the issue. If that happens, I think it’s more likely to happen at the local level.

Of course, you could choose to dump cable altogether and switch to digital broadcast television. Or you could choose to stop watching TV altogether.

If you only need to know about snow days, check the school district website or track down the snow day hotline phone number. If you want to watch the City Council meeting, it may be streamed on the city’s website or broadcast on a local NPR radio station. I probably won’t pay $3-$10 a month for the privilege of getting either on my TV.

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