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.”

Everyone’s not as excited as Breitbart, however. Lobbying groups such as the North American Broadcasters Association (NABA) asked the FCC to carry out more testing before its decision, raising concerns that public usage of white spaces could cause interference with television signals, and other devices including wireless microphones. “There are transition issues people will have to deal with,” said Dave Baylor, Secretary General of NABA, referring to the digital television transition, “and we believe adding any other variable to the pot at this point is a real issue.”

The City Council also passed a resolution expressing its concern that white space devices could interfere with wireless microphone users, such as Broadway shows, which depend on the same portion of the spectrum. But digital media activists remain confident that in a few years, white space devices will provide the public with an effective and inexpensive way to access the Internet. The key is to take advantage, says Breitbart: “The oil of the information world … is sitting on the surface.”

Decreasing the divide

Even if New Yorkers have to cool their heels until white space devices are available, some public housing residents will receive a technology upgrade sooner. Over the next three years, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) will build 15 new computer labs at public housing complexes, and offer a variety of job training and computer literacy classes to go along with them.

The project was made possible by a $600,000 grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and will be carried out in partnership with City College of New York (CCNY). A third of the money will be used to build or update existing computer labs, while the rest will be used by CCNY to develop a curriculum and hire instructors. The classes offered will range from GED preparation and job training to Internet literacy. “We’re making strides towards bridging the digital divide,” said Ukah Busgith, deputy director at NYCHA’s Department of Administration.

“It’s a promising development,” said Mary McCormick, president of the Fund for the City of New York, an organization that develops policy and technology solutions for government and non-profits. “But unless we implement it really well, in four years, they may be replacing the labs again, without much to show for it.” McCormick points out that in the past there have been major investments in computer hardware for the underserved without the necessary computer education or maintenance.

“The consequences of the digital divide are profound,” McCormick said. “The people who suffer most are young people. There is no way to prepare for a successful adulthood if you grow up without computers.”

Currently, NYCHA runs 94 computer labs in its 343 housing developments. Five of the new or updated computer labs will open in February, with 10 more to follow over the next two years. The classes will be available for anyone age 13 or older, and NYCHA plans to provide instruction to 720 residents over the course of the project.

Reshaping local radio

As digital media access activists honed in on the Internet and television, a storm has come and gone in the world of radio. A new system for measuring radio stations’ popularity developed by the radio ratings leader, Arbitron, was recently unveiled in New York and seven other cities. It led to an outcry from minority-owned and -focused radio stations, which claim that their ratings were unfairly lowered by the new system – possibly threatening their very existence.

Akin to Nielsen’s ratings of television show viewership, Arbitron has long used a “diary” system to provide similar ratings for radio programs. The ratings are then used to determine the cost of advertising on any given radio station. However, Arbitron recently replaced the diary system – in which members of the public report their radio listening habits – with the Portable People Meter (PPM), a small electronic device that automatically records whatever radio stations are playing in its vicinity. (So you could be listening to WBLS at home, but on a trip to the bodega the PPM also records K-Rock playing in the store.) “Our goal with the commercialization of the PPM is to help radio remain competitive in an increasingly challenging media marketplace,” Arbitron CEO Steve Morris said in a release.

The PPM system went into effect in New York City in October, and caused a drop-off in ratings for many Spanish language radio stations. “If you compare the diary ratings in the spring to PPM ratings this month, the fall-off in ratings is as high as 60 to 70 percent in certain Spanish language radio stations and day parts,” said Frank Flores, vice president and market manager for Spanish Broadcasting System New York, adding that such ratings dives could force some stations out of business because of lower ad revenue. Spanish Broadcasting System, which owns or operates 21 radio stations nationally, has refused to negotiate with advertisers based on the new numbers, claiming they are inaccurate. “The dramatic and drastic fall in ratings seems to happen in large part only to black and Hispanic stations,” said Flores.

Flores and others argue that the error is caused not by the new technology itself, but by the new sampling system Arbitron has adopted, which they believe undercounts minorities. Flores says that with the diary system, the zip codes of the individuals who recorded their radio habits were released, and he could verify that an appropriate number were drawn from high density black and Hispanic areas. With the new system, however, Arbitron has refused to release zip code information as a measure to prevent tampering with their samples. In the meantime, Flores has asked Arbitron to revise its new sampling system by taking into account factors such as listeners’ country of origin and other variables to guarantee that a proper number and variety of Latinos are sampled, arguing that this will make data more representative. But he has yet to see any changes. “Their timetable for addressing these concerns is six months to a year, but the problem is immediate,” he said. Arbitron maintains that it exceeded its sample target of blacks by 13 percent and of Hispanics by 23 percent.

The City Council took a position on this media matter, too, recently passing a resolution calling on the FCC to investigate the PPM system. “The new Arbitron system, which has been used in other states, already caused major changes in the ratings of stations,” said Councilman Leroy Comrie, chairman of the Consumer Affairs Committee, referring to the effects that PPM already has demonstrated in Philadelphia and Texas. Additionally, a lawsuit against Arbitron has been launched by the New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for false advertising and deceptive business practices surrounding its PPM system.

Although Arbitron has been willing to meet with the City Council, Comrie remains frustrated that they have not taken any action to address his concerns, and worries about the consequences of decreasing revenue for minority radio stations. “We are fighting to maintain local cultural influence over news and music,” he said. “It’s important that we not wind up only having superstations.”

– Alex Cotton