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Expect big problems in the switch to digital TV

ASK THIS | December 03, 2008

For some over-the-air viewers in rural areas the switch to DTV in February may result in unforeseen costs and inability to view stations they now watch. It's a potential story that news organizations of all sizes may want to check out.

By Bruce Kushnick

Q. Are the government and media outlets such as ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and Telemundo being forthcoming about difficulties in the transition to digital TV (DTV)?

Q. Why hasn’t the government done door-to-door testing in rural and rural fringe areas? Such testing would show that most antennas will not work with the DTV signals.

Q. Who is going to tell older people and low-income families that their current TV configuration may require hundreds of dollars for a new antenna, or will they have to find that out on their own?

Q. Even with new antennas, over-the-air TV viewers may lose some of their favorite channels. Reporters and editors: Will that happen in rural areas near you?

On February 17th people who use over-the-air television services with an analog signal will need a converter box to watch TV. On that date, TV stations will start sending only digital signals. Many people may already have purchased converter boxes with a government coupon worth $40.

Last May, Tom Allibone, a resident in a rural area in  Hunterdon County, New Jersey, got a Digital TV transition converter box for his over-the-air television. Allibone is a colleague of mine at Teletruth, a telecom watchdog group; he’s our director of audits. Tom never thought he’d lose his existing TV reception entirely—but that’s what happened. As he describes it, the old analog stations simply became a “No signal” on the converter box.

Allibone’s case was featured in local newspapers, along with Teletruth’s analysis of it. Teletruth then received tales of woe from customers in Hunterdon County and from people around the U.S. who also lost their signals with the new technology upgrade.

Allibone decided to take it one step further. He went to individual homes to see just how bad the transition was going to be for others in his area.

By the end of September, 29 Hunterdon County residents had called or emailed Teletruth. We followed up with interviews and on-site visits. We also examined information being supplied by the government, including an FCC report on one of the first community tests, in Wilmington, NC.

While not a large sample, our study clearly found a service problem. Virtually every house we went to stood to lose the New York stations even though Hunterdon is in the New York City metropolitan statistical area. Most customers would lose some, if not all, of their current Philadelphia coverage. (Click here for our report.)

Here’s a note we got: “After I emailed you I also emailed every single person with the FCC that I could find an email address for. I'm really, REALLY concerned for the safety of my loved ones who rely on the TV for emergency situations and news. It is also how my elderly family members stay ‘in touch’ with the outside world.”

It’s not clear how many people will be impacted by the DTV transition nationally. According to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), 19.6 million households get over-the-air TV, and an additional 14.7 million homes have secondary over-the-air TV (such as sets not connected to satellite or cable, or even old portable TVs). That brings the total impacted up to 34 million—a little less than one-third of all U.S. homes. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) put the number at 13.5 million.

That’s bad enough in its own right, but it looks like a low-ball estimate made to downplay the harm and confusion. Centris, a research firm that has been following the transition, believes there are 17 million homes with over-the-air TVs. In all, how many are going to be impacted in rural and fringe areas? In testimony, FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin claimed that there are only 1.1 million homes at risk; FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps believes it will be 1.5 million.  Centris comes in at 9.2 million. Teletruth thinks somewhat more than 10 million is a realistic figure, taking into account homes that may have cable or satellite reception for their main TVs but over-the-air reception for secondary ones.

The actual picture may be much worse. Our tests indicate that people in thousands of rural areas could lose most of the TV stations they currently watch for lack of signal strength. The problem will impact some communities more than others.

How did this situation arise?

Some time ago, the government aired a TV public service announcement saying the transition was a simple one—all that was needed is a converter box. But that’s not the case in rural areas. The FCC and NTIA never tested the converter boxes in rural or rural fringe areas and have only recently started to state that a new antenna may be needed in some cases.

Thia misinformation has been compounded by almost all media outlets. ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, Telemundo and other cable stations are airing the government's information. They have failed to tell the public that rabbit-ear antgennas may not work or that new antennas may cost hundered of dollars and will be difficult to install.

For many, antennas—a now ancient technology—will once again be required in addition to a “converter box.” Worse, in rural areas and rural fringe areas, existing antennas may not be of much help. In fact, it may be that almost no antenna-based system will give enough signal strength in these areas to get the current programming.

When one considers that it is seniors and low income families that mostly use over–the-air television, who’s going to foot the new bill and supply the technical expertise for the transition?

The NTIA stated that the transition to digital was not supposed to inconvenience people and was supposed to work with their current configurations. “These guidelines,” NTIA said, “include the ability of consumers to continue receiving broadcast programming in the same receiving configuration (e.g., same household antenna, same location) as used for the existing analog reception.”

There are also a host of other painful issues pertaining to the transition. For example:

  • The FCC’s first official test of the DTV transition was the Wilmington test, which did not adequately address rural fringe areas. The FCC’s chairman claimed that less than one percent of the households in Wilmington had any problems but actual calls and complaints suggest that the number was at least 13 percent.
  • The FCC and NTIA have spent more than $1 billion and counting on the DTV campaign without testing the converter box and antenna configurations in rural fringe areas.
  • The transition is going to take place in February, in the middle of winter. Some people may lose their reception and, with it, their major news source, during a snow storm. As one person put it – do we want to see old ladies climbing on ladders in the middle of winter?

There is also the question of possible conspiracy. Is the transition little more than a way of getting people to replace free, over-the-air TV with a cable or satellite subscription? Some cable companies have already started running ads saying that getting cable is a better way to go than making the DTV transition. Talk about a Digital divide.

Indiana Fringe
Posted by davehere
10/03/2009, 08:52 PM

It's just terrible to watch. Sound cut out, image pixelate, "no digital signal" message, clicks and pops. Good part is I'm watching less television than before analog cutoff, and saving money by not knowing (or caring) what to spend it on!

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