Preparing for the digital TV future 2008.12.24

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

You’ve heard the public service notices. You’ve read newspaper articles and watched television commentators talk about it.

Now you wait for the big date: Feb. 17, 2009, when all television broadcasting makes the switch to a digital signal.

The change is good news for most residents—although perhaps a little costlier for some. An estimated 60 percent of U.S. viewers subscribe to a cable system. The change to digital won’t mean a thing other than new programming to watch.

However, in some parts of the country, cable providers are moving many of those new digital stations to a higher-priced tier of programming. To go beyond the basics might cost more.

Satellite TV providers claim about 25 percent of U.S. households. Again, the digital change should be seamless.

And the remaining 15 percent? The millions of viewers who can’t afford to pay for cable or satellite or simply don’t want it—they might have some work to do. It depends on the age of their TV set.

Newer televisions with a digital tuner should be all set—at least all set to give it a try. Success depends on the antenna.

“Most everybody’s antenna was put up in the 1970s,” said George Walworth of George’s Radio and Antenna Service on County Road M.

That means more than 30 years of time for wires to become corroded, for loose connections to develop and for antenna elements to break off. Antennae without a rotor might be pointing in the wrong direction.

Maintenance work or an antenna upgrade might be in order.

Walworth isn’t as optimistic for those with indoor “rabbit ears” antennae. In his opinion, the days of rabbit ears are just about gone.

“Any time you put an antenna indoors, you’re defeating the purpose of the antenna,” Walworth said.

Improvements have been made in indoor antennae over the years, and viewers with indoor devices might get a satisfactory signal.

Antennas are a major concern, but people with older TVs—those without digital tuners—must first buy a digital converter box.

The converter takes the new digital signal and converts it to an analog signal, the kind that older sets were built to accept.

If your TV doesn’t have a label such as “Digital Tuner” or “Digital Receiver,” it probably will need a converter box. A label of “Digital Monitor” doesn’t necessarily mean the TV has a digital tuner inside. A high definition television is not required for the February change-over.

The Federal Communications Commission is providing two $40 coupons for each household in America for the purchase of converter boxes. That amount can cover the cost of a box, although some sell for as much as  $69.

The coupon plan hasn’t gone smoothly for everyone. Some people complain that their coupons never arrived, and since they’ve already provided their address once, they aren’t eligible for more.

Others received their coupons and put then away until later when they decided it was time to make the purchase. If they waited too long, they were surprised to learn that the coupons came with a 90-day expiration date.

Some shoppers have trouble locating  a store with converters in stock.

Walworth is getting mixed reports from people making the conversion. For some people it’s working well; for others it isn’t.

Complicating the issue is the fact that some broadcasters are not yet running their digital output at full power. That won’t happen until February.

“That’s when you can really begin to test anything,” Walworth said. “I just tell people to try it.”

If it works, you’re all set. If it doesn’t, you might want to pay Walworth to climb your antenna tower and take a look.

Patrick Fitzgerald, general manager of WBGU in Bowling Green, said calls began coming in to the station last week after the change to digital began. At least 40 people called, but that was fewer than anticipated.

Most viewing problems were quickly cleared up when people rescanned the channels—a feature on their converter boxes.

Other problems included the antenna direction—the station’s antenna is actually about 25 miles south of the city—and problems with remote control devices.

Some people are receiving an inadequate signal due to their antenna, Fitzgerald said, but that might clear up in February when a higher power signal is generated.

Tom Spiess of Fayette bought an antenna from Walworth about six years ago. He’s attached his converter boxes to his two TVs and he’s giving mixed reviews.

“It’s working well in general,” he said, “but I’m getting different stations on each TV.”

If he wants to watch Channel 13, for example, he has to head upstairs to watch. It’s not coming in downstairs.

The biggest annoyance is the addition of one more remote. There’s one for the antenna rotor, another for the TV, one for DVD player and now a new one with the converter box.

A little ingenuity reduced the problem quantity.

“I Velcro’d two together, the two I need most of the time,” Spiess said.

Reception details

Want some details on reception in your area?

Go to www.antennaweb.org, click on “Select an Antenna” and type in your address, or least your Zip Code.

What appears is a list of stations, the distance from their broadcasting tower to your house, and the compass direction of the tower—for pointing your antenna.

The stations are color coded by what kind of antenna is needed to pull in the signal.

By clicking on “View Street Level Map,” a map of your neighborhood appears with a graphic showing where to point the antenna.

Fine print at the bottom of the page notes “the above listing is a conservative prediction of stations received. Depending on the specifics of your installation, you may not be able to receive stations that do not appear in this list.”

Several factors may be at work in reception problems. Tom Young, a spokesperson for Channel 13 in Toledo, reports that stations are now broadcasting both digital and analog so there are twice as many channels until Feb. 17. Digital transmissions are subject to interference, he said.

He’s also heard of people having problems due to reflection of signals from aluminum siding.

A trouble-shooting guide on the FCC’s website (www.fcc.gov) discusses adjusting indoor antennae to different locations in a room or closer to a wall.

Mention is also made for the need of an antenna that covers both VHF and UHF bands and of the possible need for upgrading from an indoor antennae to an outdoor model.

Why the change?

The old analog signal takes a lot more space in the airwaves than digital. The conversion to digital frees up a lot of space for emergency service use, but mostly for new wireless uses.

An auction of the “wireless spectrum” earlier this year brought in $19 billion for the government, mostly from Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

The smaller digital signal allows television stations to increase programming. Some of those new offerings are available now; others will come on-line in February.

Multicasting allows simultaneous broadcasting of several channels. Bowling Green State University’s station WBGU is taking the biggest advantage of area stations with three additional channels.

27.1 is the main station; 27.2 offers children’s programming; 27.3 is Create, a selection of how-to and do-it-yourself programs; and 27.4 is Encore, locally produced programming.

Multicasting is nothing new for WBGU, said general manager Patrick Fitzgerald, but it will be new to viewers who don’t have cable service. With their converter boxes, they’ll be able to bring in all four programming streams.

Similarly, Channel 24 in Toledo will offer the main programming at 24.1, while 24.2 will feature Retro—a collection of popular shows from the past—and 24.3 will be a weather channel.

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