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Congress delays DTV switch

By Chris Gaylord | 02.04.09

Americans will get another four more months to prepare for the digital television transition.

With just a few weeks to go before the original deadline would hit, the House voted Wednesday to delay the switch that would end analog TV transmissions. This postponement means households with old antenna TVs have until June 12 to buy a DTV converter box – and possibly get it at $40 off. If you’re unsure whether the transition affects you, check out the Monitor’s DTV survival guide.

Democrats are calling the 264-158 House vote a win, and saying the Obama administration now has until the summer to unsnarl this troubled digital roll out. Senators approved the delay unanimously last week, arguing that the government had not properly warned poor, rural, and minority communities.

“The passage of this bipartisan legislation means that millions of Americans will have the time they need to prepare for the conversion,” the White House said in a statement. “We will continue to work with Congress to improve the information and assistance available to American consumers in advance of June 12, especially those in the most vulnerable communities.”

But even if all of the 6.5 million homes that have analog TVs buy the new digital boxes, some will receive worse service, or no signal at all. The Monitor’s technology columnist discovered that:

The first thing you need to know about a digital TV signal is that you either get it, or you don’t. Unlike analog TV, which still produces a fuzzy picture if reception is poor, digital gives you all or nothing. The moment the signal drops below a certain level, the set goes black. The TV industry has an interesting way to describe this: “falling off a cliff.” No kidding.

Discovery two: A digital signal is affected by practically everything – where your TV set is located in your house, the walls in your house, the number of trees in your yard, how close it is to other electronic devices, birds migrating south in the fall. No kidding. A Washington Post story described how a woman who lived on the 20th floor of an apartment building would lose her signal for a few moments every time a plane landed or took off from Reagan National airport.

My third finding: Indoor antennas are almost useless when it comes to digital signals. Oh, if you live in the right place, have no criminal record, and go to church every Sunday, you might get the entire broadcast spectrum. But chances are you’ll end up like me.

So, if your TV relies on an antenna, spend the next four months reading up on how the DTV switch will affect you. And, if all else fails, consider switching to cable or satellite TV, which will be unaffected by the transition in June. Or, forget the tube and turn to Netflix, hulu.com, and the bevy of TV-network websites that now stream shows the day after they air. These solutions won’t be perfect, especially for the poor and rural families that Congress is concerned about, but the road to digital television has been far bumpier than most imagined.

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1. Kate G., Seattle WA | 02.04.09

This one article provided more usable information than any of the countless public service spots that have portrayed analog to digital preparation as no more complicated than setting a converter box (no antenna upgrade required!) next to an analog TV set. The public education campaign so far has been insultingly simplistic and indifferent to potential reception difficulties associated with digital-only broadcasting.

2. gb | 02.04.09

For those with reception problems, you can build your own antenna from clothes hangars. It works great, no kidding. Here’s the link http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2009/01/maker_workshop_pdf_dtv_antenna.html

3. Alvis V. | 02.05.09

Thank you for linking to the December 2nd Monitor article that you’ve quoted. I read that article the day it appeared, but hadn’t gone back to read the excellent section of reader comments about their experiences with digital reception. I remain amazed that the government and 99% of the media have failed to provide analog TV owners with any analog-to-digital transition advice beyond “you’ll need a converter box.”

4. Tom | 02.05.09

I can’t believe they delayed it. People had 2 f’n years to get ready and they told you how to get your digital box every single day, people deserve the government they get.

5. Noel Petit | 02.05.09

Now that Congress has delayed the required shutdown of the analog signals we can look forward to people losing TV reception in the middle of the severe weather season here in the Midwest. The reason February was picked is to have time after the switch for others to upgrade after the Hurricane Season and before tornadoes swept through their towns. Now we can thank Congress for the shortsighted, knee jerk reaction to an apparent problem. At least this program only cost $1.5B.

And none of the technical statements from your technology columnist have any technical backing:

The new modulation scheme produces DTV images well beyond the range of useful analog images. Yes the analog image goes to snow but the analog sound is FM and has the same “falling off the cliff” effect. The cliff is much further out for DTV than standard TV. This will be even more noticed when the analog transmitters are turned off and the full transmitter power is dedicated to DTV. (at a significant energy saving as well).

The digital signal is in the UHF spectrum (exactly where the UHF channels are today). Their shorter wavelengths make antenna location and positioning more difficult, but again DTV is the same as UHF.

And third, because the DTV receive can lock to the transmitters signal indoor UHF antennas are less effective than DTV antennas (given the same size antenna and the same transmitted power). DTV antennas are smaller, lighter and easier to mount than the UHF/VHF monsters that are used for outlying TV reception. My DTV antenna lies 50 miles from the TV towers in near St. Paul, Minnesota. I pick up all the signals from the DTV using a 4 element array antenna (about 36″ tall, 18″ wide and 10″ deep) hanging indoors roughly pointed toward St. Paul. Before my indoor antenna got some of the UHF channels and 1/2 of the VHF channels from the same towers.

Noel Petit
Professor Computer Science
Augsburg College
WB0VGI, Amateur Extra Operator
Ph.D. , Physics, University of Minnesota

6. Barb | 02.08.09

I can’t believe they delayed it either. I thought studies showed that seniors were like over 95 % ready for this, that it was the young types not prepared. Now it will be worse because what they did was to not make the change mandatory. I heard all of our local stations where making the change anyway. I also heard it would cost Public TV millions of dollars to not make the change and they didn’t know how they would cover the cost.


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