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DTV: Hold on Tight, Here We go

Pete Putman, CTS

Pete Putman, CTS

As you read this, the terrestrial digital TV "transition" (or more accurately, the analog TV shutdown) is just around the corner. Are we ready? Will the days before the big switch be full of dire predications, a la Y2K? Or will we just experience a slight bump in the road at midnight?

Odds are, there will still be a bunch of problems to deal with. For one thing, that endearing human trait known as procrastination will surely result in a tidal wave of phone calls to local TV stations after the switch, demanding to know where their analog signal went while denying any knowledge of the shutdown. (This, even though we've been bombarded with public service announcements on TV, ads in papers and magazines, and test shutdowns of analog broadcasts in almost every major market since last summer.)

For another thing, there are numerous TV stations waiting for the current occupant of their assigned DTV channel to pack up and move out, so the former group can light up their transmitters. In some cases, that "current occupant" is using a temporary DTV channel assignment. In others, it's an existing analog TV station that's been there for years.

The TV stations nestled on channels 52 through 69 have another problem altogether: They're considered squatters after February 17, and are being evicted to channels 2 through 51. Some of these folks have the misfortune of not only operating a legacy analog TV station in these "outside the core" channels, but also got a temporary DTV channel assignment from the FCC in the same block.

How about things at the receiving end? It wasn't that long ago that major consumer electronics manufacturers openly scoffed at the idea of a $50 terrestrial DTV converter box. Who'd buy it?

Well, as of now, there are more than 60 models of converter boxes offered for sale, with 44 of them capable of passing through analog (NTSC) TV signals. About 40 million DTV converter box coupons had been requested, with more than 16 million redeemed, according to the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). That's a lot of converter boxes! (The NTIA even had to start putting people on a wait list for coupons, prompting Barack Obama and the Consumers Union to request a delay in the transition.)

Analog TV pass-through? Yep, it seems the FCC overlooked one small detail in the conversion to digital TV: Although full-power TV stations must go digital on February 17, low-power stations and translators are exempt for now. The only problem with that action was that early models of DTV converter boxes largely ignored analog signal pass-through, prompting a lawsuit against the FCC by the trade association for low power broadcasters, the Community Broadcasters Association (CBA).

No Reason Not to Have It

Because digital TV is so much better in quality and more versatile than analog TV, interest in receiving it is steadily growing. Sales of antennas have started climbing as more and more people realize they can get free digital TV (including some nice HDTV programming) by adding rabbit ears to their new HDTV set, or an attic or rooftop antenna.

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