My 1/13/08 Missoulian Column
Last week I looked into the February 2009 changeover from analog to digital TV from the consumer’s perspective: why it’s happening, how to tell if your TV is digital ready, how to apply for a $40 coupon to offset the cost of a converter box. About 2.5 million households requested converter box coupons in the first week they were available, and converter boxes are scheduled to arrive in stores and online next month.
Now, a little-known fact has emerged: There’s a chance many viewers getting signals from low-power stations won’t be completely in the dark in early 2009 if they don’t have a digital TV or converter box. There are more than 7,500 low-power stations and translators in mostly rural areas where people receive over-the-air broadcasts and will be affected by the analog cutoff.
Frank Tyro, director of the media center at Salish Kootenai College-based public station KSKC-TV, told me about the changeover from a broadcaster’s perspective. KSKC is a Class A low-power station in Pablo with three translators that rebroadcast the signal to other parts of the Flathead Valley. The station’s overall goal is public service, and Tyro has long been aware of the impending analog-to-digital change and is concerned about its effect on the community. Tyro’s biggest concern is the lack of complete information about the analog cutoff. Tyro says that in February 2009, all analog signals won’t necessarily be turned off.
Last fall, the Federal Communications Commission backed off the absolute cutoff under pressure from the owners and operators of low-power station. Full-power stations will turn off their analog signals and be exclusively digital as required, but low-power stations such as KSKC and their translators can continue to transmit an analog signal alongside the digital.
This even though FCC chief Kevin Martin still says the hard cutoff date is crucial to efforts to sell licenses to a portion of those airwaves for wireless services and delaying the switch could discourage companies from participating in the high-stakes auction.
Another problem that has surfaced is the FCC is encouraging consumers to buy converter boxes that won’t work with mixed analog and digital broadcasts. That’s because most of the boxes certified and being manufactured for sale don’t have analog pass-through capability. Most simply convert analog signals to digital and reject any analog signals that need to pass through unconverted. So if you buy the wrong box, you’ll have to plug it in to watch digital TV, then unplugging it to watch channels broadcast in analog from low-power stations.
The Community Broadcasters Association has said the FCC should have required analog pass through in all converters from the outset and has asked the agency to outlaw boxes without it, or at least label them as such.
Currently, only three of the 22 FCC-approved boxes will pass through analog signals: the Philco TB150HH9 and TB100HH9, $50-70; the Echostar TR-40, $40. BestBuy, Target and Wal-Mart are scheduled to have converter boxes in stock around Feb. 17, but not necessarily those three models.
Update: the Echostar TR-40 is delayed until June or July, 2008.
That creates another problem, as the $40 converter box coupons are only good for 90 days after you apply for them. Some boxes won’t be available in large numbers until this summer, notably the Echostar TR-40, which will be “free” with the $40 coupon and also has the analog pass-through feature, according to an Echostar press release.
Tyro says KSKC will turn on its new digital transmitters next fall and provide digital and analog signals past February 2009. The exact timing will depend on how many of KSKC viewers still have only analog capability, whether the station can afford to maintain and operate both analog and digital simultaneously and how well the converter boxes work. Many other station operators and translators will “flash cut” in February 2009, he says, which means they will turn off the analog transmitter and turn on the digital one using the same frequency.
Tyro says if you’re going to forgo the converter box and buy a new TV in the next year, ATSC (Advanced TV Standards Committee) is an important acronym to look for. An ATSC label on a TV means it will receive both digital and analog broadcasts and display them in either standard or high definition or high definition, depending on the its capability. If you need a new TV now and want to be sure you can get analog broadcasts without a converter box next year, ATSC might be a good buy.
Tyro also says the Montana Broadcasters Association is planning community presentations on these issues and any new ones that emerge, so look for the announcements.
For more information on the TV changeover, go to www.dtv.gov. To apply for a $40 converter box coupon, go to DTV2009.gov or call 1-888-388-2009 (TTY 1-877-530-2634).