Switching to DTV will be messy

By Kevin Parrish, Tom's Guide

A federal communications official says that switching all U.S. televisions to digital will be messy.

With the nation gearing up for the mandatory switch from analog to digital TV signals on February 17, 2009, 15% of U.S. households currently using analog television sets will have to either purchase a converter box or subscribe to their local cable service. Although the government, cable companies, and local TV stations have ramped up educational ads and offers, Robert McDowell of the Federal Trade Commission sees a bumpy road ahead.

"The transition will be messy ... but we will get through it," he told Reuters.

However, his comment appears to contradict the positive results stemming from a trial run conducted in Wilmington, North Carolina. As of September 9, the city shut off its analog signals and now broadcasts totally in digital, serving as a "beta test" of what is to come in February. Wilmington volunteered to be the test candidate for the mandatory switch, ranked as the 135th largest television market in the United States, representing around 180,000 households. It is estimated that nearly 14,000 receive free over-the-air television programming with rooftop antennas or “rabbit-ears.”

According to a report released by the FCC after the analog signals went offline, 0.5 percent of the area residents called the helpline asking for help in switching over to digital. On the second day after switching over to digital, the number of calls coming in dropped by 50 percent. Of the calls received during the transition, only 23 were from those who were unaware of the transition, or did not know the exact date. Moreover, 160 calls were from viewers who had difficulty setting up the converter boxes during the first day. Viewers who couldn’t get a local signal totaled around 232 callers while 87 viewers complained that they never received the converter box coupon.

In total, the bulk of the complaints stemmed from viewers not upgrading in time, not receiving the coupon, difficulty in installing the converter box (or having technical issues with the device) or the inability to pick up a signal altogether. Would these problems be considered as "messy?" Perhaps.

“While we believe that the transition in Wilmington is going smoothly, the measure of success in Wilmington is what is going to happen next February, and what we are able to learn from this experience and how we apply those lessons as we move this effort across the country,” said FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin during the initial transition.

So how does DTV work? If the antenna doesn’t pick up a digital signal, the screen appears blank; there is no "white noise." Signal strength determines the quality of the picture, however a good reception yields extremely sharp images; low reception pauses, becomes blocky (like low-quality streaming video) or stops altogether. While consumers can pick up any set of "rabbit ears" antenna (special digital versions are not necessary despite advertisements), rooftop versions are the best application rather than the smaller, "TV top" set. Digital signals don’t fade in and out due to poor reception; either the TV picks up the image or it doesn’t.

According to the FCC, switching over to digital was more about efficiency than quality. The digital signals use smaller portions of the publically owned airways, thereby allowing more space for commercial and public safety uses such as police and fire departments.

But while the FCC has seen a transitional success in Wilmington, there’s still plenty of time to inform viewers across the nation before the official switch on February 17. McDowell believes that broadcasters should ramp up the current barrage of information and target advertising based on "technical needs of local markets." McDowell is one of the many FCC commissioners who are now visiting local officials and broadcasters nationwide in hope to better educate about the switch.

If the FCC does "live and learn" with the results generated from Wilmington’s pre-launch experiment, then perhaps the nation-wide transition won’t be quite as "messy" as McDowell proposes. If anything, consumers need to be educated, the coupons need to be readily available, and the converter boxes stocked at all retail outlets come February.

article originally published at http://www.tomsguide.com/us/Digital-TV-FCC,news-2766.html.

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