Commentary: Digital switch-over is on its way

If he doesn't decide to switch off first

WASHINGTON -- I have always loved machines. In my life there are machines that have taken on entirely mythic capabilities, as if they were some kind of Marvel superhero. Take my 1965 Plymouth Valiant.

It wasn't pretty, though it did have nice styling. Its interior was somewhat worn. When people would ask me whether the odometer had flipped, I answered: "Yes. Twice." When whatever kind of hot rod I was trying to put together wouldn't work, which was most of the time, the "leaning tower of power" in Prince Val would fire right up. I feel bad for the machines that came after. It's hard to be slant-six reliable.

I'm working on one of those machines now. An old G-4 iBook. It ain't fast. It ain't pretty, but it works. All the freakin' time. You'll pry this one out of my cold, dead hands.

I was forced to think about reliability last weekend as another eight-hour chunk of my life was consumed with four different reps for my Internet Service Provider. I've spent so much time with people at Verizon's tech support in Tijuana that I feel like I should have the Mexican version of a green card.

I don't know what it is, but if there's an electron of static electricity in the air, or my favorite weatherman "Lyin' Ryan" predicts fog, the network goes down. I don't know where that guy in the TV commercials who has all those workers follow him around lives, but it ain't near my house.

Intellectually, I understand we are turning away from a world where gears and cogs matter. The "machine age" is practically over. It is being replaced by things that don't spin and turn, where movement is invisible. I want to believe that this is going to be better after we work out the bugs.

But I can't help but keep thinking about ol' Prince Val. Especially as my wife turned to me when we were watching "Ugly Betty" and announced: "Digital TV sucks."

We were experiencing what is known among engineers and politicians as the "cliff effect." In the old analog world, if you were close enough to a TV station, the signal always got through. It might not be pretty, but you could at least hear America Ferrera's lines.

With DTV, you get it or you're off the cliff. Right now, we can just downshift into analog and get the signal, though that won't be the case after the digital switch-over in February.

Which begs the question: "Why did we buy this fancy new TV if we're still watching it in analog?"

Explaining the "cliff effect" to Jeri was not useful.

I asked the chairman of the FCC -- the government agency most responsible for the transition to digital TV -- about it. This fall the commission is going to Wilmington, N.C., to see what will really happen when broadcasters turn off the analog signal we've all come to know and love.

"I think it's important for consumers to understand that the current digital signals that they may be receiving may not be either at the full power or in the final antenna placement for what the digital signals will be like next February," Kevin Martin explains. "That will make a difference in how well or how effective you can receive signals on the outer edges of that marketplace."

Well, I live 6 1/2 miles from the White House and less than eight miles from the commission. They don't need to go all the way down to Wilmington to see the cliff effect. They can just come to my house. We'll have popcorn and they can wait until the signal drops out just as Bart asks Moe to see if there's a ... well, a somebody in the bar. I thought Moe's lips said "I need Amanda Hugenkiss," but I I fell off the cliff.

The converter-box coupon deal is the one thing that's gone off without a hitch so far in my personal DTV experiment. I called the 800 number, received my pair of red voucher cards and got in and out of the local Best Buy without a hitch. I didn't even have to ask for directions; the greeter recognized the Commerce Department envelope when I walked in. She said 20-50 people come in every day with one just like mine.

Coupons aside, my experience with digital communications keeps making me wonder: Is watching TV going to be like using the Internet? Will it take eight hours out of my life every time there's an electron of static electricity in the air or the threat of rain? Or, will it be like Prince Val and that slant-six?

Admittedly, the possibility of witnessing the implosion of a huge industrial-planning program makes my mouth water more than a brokered convention. But while I might love a train wreck, I'm not sure the rest of America wants to be treated like a bunch of lemmings.