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Feeling fuzzy about digital TV?

A little planning can come in handy when TV stations switch to all-digital programming Feb. 17

POSTED: November 9, 2008 5:00 a.m.
LOGAN WALLACE /The Associated Press

An analog-only television set displays the message that began broadcasting at noon last Monday, as the transition from analog to digital television signals in Wilmington, N.C., began.

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Nowadays, clocks flash instead of tick. Phones sing instead of ring.

And it's only a matter of time before the TV crosses over to join its electronic brethren in the digital realm.
Feb. 17 will mark the end of an era as all analog television airwaves will cease and broadcasting will be completely digital.

Those who subscribe to cable or satellite TV services will not be affected come February, but those with analog sets who have relied on an antenna to receive basic channels will need to buy a converter box in order to continue receiving a television signal.

Last week, Wilmington, N.C., became the first market in the nation to go completely digital.

Wilmington's WWAY Channel 13, which is owned by Morris Multimedia, The Times' parent company, was among the few channels ending its first digital week. WWAY General Manager Andy Combs said he is satisfied with the new picture.

"No question it was a good decision to do the switchover," Combs said. "We're excited."

Combs said he did receive "a couple hundred phone calls" for the first few days following the switch, but the majority of the calls the station received were from people who procrastinated and did not set up their converter box or check their antenna ahead of time.

"We're going to have a learning curve here at first," Combs said. "But the benefit's going to be well worth it."


Who will be affected?
The percentage of the population still getting their TV programming through an antenna and analog set is small, said Ann Hollifield, head of the telecommunications department at the University of Georgia.

"There are a lot of people who still have analog sets. However today there's a relatively small percentage of the population who do not subscribe to either cable or satellite," Hollifield said.

And a good number of those still using the old technology are elderly, said Will Phillips, associate state director for advocacy of AARP Georgia.

"Older Georgians are likely to be more affected by this transition," Phillips said.

Phillips said while the AARP is working to spread word of the transition through its magazine and other endeavors, he thinks it is especially important for friends and family to help older people understand why the technology is changing.

"What's really going to be important is that neighbors and friends and families talk to folks who they think might be impacted by this transition and they give them the information and the assistance they need to make the change," Phillips said.

Combs agreed that many older residents may need help through the digital transition because the majority of the calls he fielded were from seniors.

Hollifield said low-income families also may be a portion of the affected group, though many do subscribe to basic cable.

"Research shows that people with low incomes are pretty likely to have a cable subscription and put that into their budget because cable is generally a pretty good entertainment value when you consider how much programming you get for your basic cable subscription compared to what it would cost you to get that many movie tickets, for example," Hollifield said.

Why change?
Hollifield said the transition to digital broadcasting began back in the 1990s, when Congress saw a need to prepare for evolving technology and mandated a changeover.

At a time when cell phones and other technology were becoming ubiquitous, the spectrum used for television broadcasts could be used for other technology, Hollifield said.

"The part of the spectrum that analog signals are broadcast over is a portion of the spectrum that also is very effective for use for mobile communication and for things like emergency and military communication," Hollifield said. "So recognizing that as more and more technologies were going mobile and as there was more and more demand for that spectrum, Congress made the decision that they wanted to recapture that analog spectrum so it could be reassigned for other uses. And of course in return, they had to move the television spectrum up to ... another part of the spectrum ... that could not be as effectively used for mobile and other kinds of communication."

Another reason the U.S. government felt compelled to mandate a digital switch was to keep up with foreign advances in technology.

"The Japanese had invented a high-definition standard already at that point. And the Congress foresaw that basically Japan would control high-definition technology with that standard and clearly HD was going to be the next thing coming along," Hollifield said.

And though the digital switch has been in the works for quite some time, Hollifield said it is finally happening because the public did not take to high-definition technology as quickly as many predicted.

"This technology change was mandated by Congress. Unlike most technologies, where somebody invents something and the consumers discover it and if they like it and it works and it does something for them nothing else has done, they start adopting it," Hollifield said. "Well, nobody went to Congress and said we can't live without a better television picture, and so HD has been around for a decade or so but there has been a very, very slow adoption curve by the public. Not a lot of people wanted to go out and by an expensive new television set to replace an analog TV set that works perfectly well."

Because so many people still have analog sets, the digital switch over became feasible because of the converter boxes, which enable people to purchase a one-time fix for their TVs, with government help. The government is offering coupons worth up to $40 per household to help defray the cost of the boxes.

"So after years of pushing the digital transition deadline back and back and back, Congress said, ‘We can handle this without forcing everybody to go out and buy new television sets,'" Hollifield said. "It's been a long, complicated process."

Bridging the digital gap
After one week of digital, Combs was able to give one clear piece of advice to the rest of the nation.
"Don't wait until Feb. 17 to install your equipment," Combs said.

By starting early, it will be much easier to work out any issues with the converter box or antenna to ensure the TV will work in February.

Though most of the calls Combs received were simple, he said the volume of calls were from people who waited until the last minute to get set up.

And because the entire nation will be going digital Feb. 17, he predicted it would be difficult to get assistance that day, and electronic stores may be sold out of equipment.

Plus, Combs said there is likely at least one station broadcasting in digital in each market already, so by setting up the digital converter box now, people could begin enjoying the benefits.

"Take advantage of the better quality picture now," Combs said.

Analog sets often pick up a signal with "snow," or static, which produces a fuzzy picture.

"With digital you have a crystal clear picture or no picture at all," Combs said.

That is one of the reasons it is smart to test your antenna with the converter box. If you get a fuzzy picture now, you may need to upgrade to a more powerful antenna to pick up the digital signal.

The benefit of digital broadcasting is that not only will people get a better picture, but they will also have access to additional channels. Because of the wider bandwidth, each station can broadcast more channels.

"We're choosing to broadcast two channels," Combs said.
Aside from normal programing, WWAY chose to have a second local weather channel that provides Wilmington weather 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Hollifield said having more channels available to every station will change the television industry, but no one is sure what will happen.

"The industry is in a very disruptive change. It's going to make for a very interesting few years," she said.



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