Fighting the Static
The Citizen Explores the Upcoming Transition From Analog to Digital
by Whitney Skeeters
The upcoming switch from analog broadcast television to digital television is weighing heavily on several wallets in Morgan County.
Digital signals mean more channels and better picture and sound quality, but it is also an expensive transition that many will not be willing or able to make. By June 12, the major, over-the-air channels are required to broadcast from a digital signal instead of an analog signal, freeing up spectrum space for public safety communications for police, fire departments and rescue squads. What spectrum isn't used for the public, the 700 MHz frequency band, was auctioned off to billion-dollar spenders such as Verizon, AT&T and Google to provide advanced wireless services.
This means Morgan County viewers who rely on an antenna to receive the free signals will have three options: purchase a digital converter, purchase a new TV that has a built-in digital tuner, or switch to cable or satellite providers.
Diane Malcom purchased a digital converter box for her analog television set: a $50 Magnavox converter from Wal-mart. Malcom said the box was difficult to hook up and in doing so she lost several of her favorite channels.
"The majority of what we watch is on channel 2, it is where we get our news. The only way we can get it now is if we turn off the converter," said Malcom. "As far as the stations being clear, that's great. But it doesn't allow you to get all the channels you got before."
Because the digital signals are much weaker, depending on their location, some viewers will have to purchase a new or larger antenna to pick up certain signals if they want to get them once all television is digital. These antennas usually cost about $50.
Malcom said she did gain more channels than she lost, but they were stations she "didn't really care to have."
Trent Cameron, computer technician at the Radio Shack on Eatonton Road, reported he has seen more positive than negative feedback on the converters he has sold and installed. Since the start of the year, they have already sold more than 40, and Cameron predicts they will sell more once the analog signals cease and the TV sets around the county go snowy. Many of his customers came in to purchase a box after they saw the difference in display on someone else's television.
Although it has been a confusing annoyance for many, the benefits of digital broadcasting are numerous. Not only does digital have much better sound and picture quality, it also uses a process called multicasting, which offers more options to program providers. A channel now has room for one high definition channel or for multiple standard definition channels that show simultaneously. For example, Malcom now has channel 11.1, which shows the regular programming she saw before, as well as channel 11.2, an all-weather channel.
Digital converter boxes range between $50 and $80 and can be found at electronics stores. Many viewers around the country were able to take part in the Converter Box Coupon Program, an effort to help the adjustment by offering those who apply a $40 discount on the purchase of the boxes. The program's funding, which came from proceeds from the 700 MHz auction, has already run out.
Cameron said he recently received a memo that the federal government is working to find more funding for the coupons and that a new program is in the works. Until then, those who didn't receive a coupon will have to pay the full price or hope for the best on the waiting list.
Malcom is the activities director at the senior center in Madison. She thinks many seniors who receive the free, over the air channels will not be able to participate in the switch.
"We discussed it with them, but none of them took advantage of the coupon program," said Malcom. "I don't think the majority would change over because they wouldn't be capable of hooking it up. A lot of them are on a fixed income and can't afford it."
PREPARING FOR THE TRANSITION
•Who is affected? Those who receive free, over-the-air broadcast channels on an analog TV. Cable and satellite subscribers will not be affected.
•How to prepare for the digital transition? If you have an analog TV, you can purchase a digital converter box from a participating electronics store, buy a new television set with a built-in digital tuner, or subscribe to cable or satellite services.
•What is a digital converter box? A simple device that allows an analog TV to receive digital programming. Converter boxes allow for better sound and picture quality and in some cases, more channels. Most cost approximately $60; check with electronic stores to find the right one for you. Radio Shack offers one for $59.99.
•When is the transition? The initial deadline was February 17, but Congress recently extended the date to June 12, 2009.
•Why are broadcasts are switching to digital? The switch will lead to better quality programming and more opportunities for interactive video and data services. It will also free up spectrum space for public safety communications and for advanced wireless services.
Published in the February 19, 2009 edition.