Well, it’s done: After an early delay caused by project mismanagement, the U.S. is now a digital television-only nation. According to the FCC, the big switch on Friday went well. And it’s come with a scientific benefit that’s been overlooked until now.
According to the VP of the National Association of Broadcasters, Jonathan Collegio, the early indications are that the switch from analog TV signal to digital has “been a success.” Collegio notes that the U.S. is also the “first large nation” to make the switch–a slightly questionable statistic, given that there may have been numerically more people affected when Sweden or Germany made the change recently–but still an indication of the complexity of the task. There have been a few issues, such as people needing help with antenna set-ups, and some people losing channels due to the different mapping of the digital signal over the terrain. But that was expected, and it’s why the hotline exists.
And here’s the interesting science bit: You’ve always been able to do this with an analog TV. Simply de-tune it and peer at the famous snowy static–the visual effect caused by your TV detecting plain old radio noise. A tiny percentage of those spots, hisses and blips are caused by the cosmic microwave background (CMB). And the CMB, if you didn’t know, is a microwave signal that’s spread throughout space and is an easily-detectable remnant of the Big Bang. In other words, you can use an analog TV to detect the start of the universe.
Now that analog TV stations have been switched off, it’s even easier to see the effect. Without any interference from signals that used to share that spectrum, the cosmic signals can come through loud and clear (once you disconnect your digital converter box).
But it will only last for a short time. That nice empty radio spectrum will soon be used for other purposes, like 4G wireless signals. And before too long you won’t be able to buy a TV with an analog tuner at all. So listen up to the galaxy while you still can.