Thursday, February 5, 2009
Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
DTV Conversion: Upgrading Televisions
For the past four years, television systems in the United States have been preparing to switch to a digital-only broadcast format. Until last week, that transition was initially set for February 17, 2009. At present, many television channels broadcast both digital and analog versions of their programs; however, once the conversion to digital is complete, the analog programming will end entirely leaving analog-only customers literally in the dark.
Why is the country switching formats? The Federal Communications Commission explains on its website dedicated to this switch, www.dtv.gov, “Digital television will enable broadcasters to offer television with better picture and sound quality. It can also offer multiple programming choices, called multicasting, and interactive capabilities”. Multicasting computer technology enables a user to simultaneously deliver a single stream of DTV Conversion: Upgrading Televisions information to thousands of users at once. A television station broadcasting in analog on Channel 7 is only able to offer one program; a television broadcaster using multicasting can offer their viewers several channels of digital programming at once: one digital program on channel 7-1, another digital program on channel 7-2, a third on channel 7-3, etc., giving more programming choices for viewers.
But most important of all according to the FCC, converting the existing analog broadcast signals to DTV will “free up parts of the scarce
and valuable broadcast spectrum. Those portions of the spectrum can then be used for other important services, such as public and safety
services, police and fire departments, emergency rescues, and advanced wireless services”. While no one could argue against providing
emergency workers with the maximum capabilities to do their jobs, the transition from analog broadcasting to DTV will have a profound impact on those who can afford it least.
Many individuals on fixed incomes, such as the elderly, the poor, and the disabled, still receive their television broadcasts from either a
rooftop antenna or a “rabbit ears” system, old television-top antennae. These individuals only receive a handle of television stations, and those who are housebound may depend on their televisions as their only source of entertainment or connection to the outside world. For such individuals, a television broadcast is even more critical to them than the population at large. Yet these individuals are now at the greatest risk of losing that connection entirely.
In order for an analog-only television, one that needs an antenna to receive broadcast signals, to continue to receive signals after the transition, the televisions will need a convertor box to translate the new digital-only signals back to the old analog system. These convertor boxes are called “set-top convertor boxes” and, according to the FCC, “the unit sits on top of the viewer’s analog TV, receives the Digital TV signal, converts it to an analog signal, and then sends that signal on to the analog TV”.
Due to the expense of these convertor boxes, which can cost between $40 and $70 each, the FCC started providing $40 coupons to households to off-set the cost of this transition on January 1, 2008. Unfortunately, the FCC has used the entire budget allotted for these coupons; anyone who still needs to convert their systems must now either absorb the entire cost themselves, or be placed on a wait list in the hopes that more funds will become available. According to the FCC, “If you would like to apply for a coupon today and are eligible, you will be placed on a waiting list. If you choose to apply for your coupons today and are eligible, you will receive a reference number. You can use this reference number to return to this website periodically and check the status of your request. The website will be updated if funding becomes available, and the mailing date for your coupons will be updated at that time”.Unfortunately, those individuals most likely to still be operating their televisions with rooftop antennae or “rabbit ears” systems are also those who are most likely not to have internet access and will therefore be unable to track their wait-list status on the FCC website. Individuals without internet access may, however, call the FCC at 1-888-DTV- 2009 to be placed on the wait list for these coupons. Currently there are 2.5 million Americans on the waiting list for the $40 convertor box coupons.
However, the convertor boxes, even when available, do not always solve the problem. Jim Vinci, the owner of Berger’s Appliances in Hawthorne, spoke to the Guardian about the problems some of his customers are facing. “The convertor box should help people with antennas to get their television signals” Vinci said. “But the combination of convertor box and antenna may not be sufficient to receive some signals in some areas. Some people might need antenna boosters to help them get a television signal. They might be used to getting only a handful of stations from their antenna, but with the conversion to DTV, they could lose some of the few stations they manage to get now”.
Stations with stronger signals, such as Channel 7, may be fine, but stations that broadcast on weaker signals, such as community, non-profit,
and local stations, may not be picked up at all. A housebound senior who depends on the political debates, plays, classical concerts, and cultural performances on Channel 13 for entertainment and information may now be faced with being only able to watch teenage reality shows and entertainment industry news on Channel 7 instead.
Vinci, like the Guardian, is concerned that the individuals who depend upon their television the most are the ones who have the most antiquated equipment. “I was shocked that there are still a lot of people out there with the old rabbit ears and antennae systems,” Vinci acknowledged. “Some people even want the old tube style televisions instead of the newer digital TVs and they just don’t make those tube sets anymore.
And some of the elderly have antennas that literally date back to the 1950’s, from when they bought their house or got their first television
sets. Those antennae would need to be updated with boosters or replaced completely.” Vinci agreed that these individuals would have the least amount of money to be able to make the necessary conversions to accommodate digital transmissions, and they would be “left in the
dark”. “If they never upgraded their television systems all this time, it’s probably because they never had the money” Vinci noted.
This situation has caused concern among our local representatives. On January 15, Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-Westchester/Rockland)
called for immediate assistance for those consumers, noting that: “In addition to entertainment, many consumers rely on television for critical emergency alerts. Consumers Union has reported that 19 million American households rely exclusively on the over-the-air reception, including for news and weather information.”
Congresswoman Lowey quoted Consumers Union Policy Analyst Joel Kelsey who noted, “The federal government will receive over $19
billion as a result of the DTV spectrum auction. Over seven million unprepared households are now being asked to spend their own money
to navigate this federally mandated transition. This economic climate is not the right time to ask consumers to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for the miscalculation by the federal government”.
In her press release, Lowey also announced that she signed a letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, asking
that the House immediately consider legislation to aid viewers. “It is imperative that everyone have an opportunity to receive a coupon
and purchase and install a converter box before the transition date,” said Lowey. “I strongly encourage every household who needs coupons
to apply for them today by calling 1-888-DTV-2009 or going to www.dtv2009.gov. My colleagues and I are fighting to clear the backlog, but
it is important for everyone who relies on over-the-air television to apply now so that they will be eligible when and if more coupons become
Lowey also asked Congress to delay the switch past the original February 17 date to allow more households to prepare for this. With
support from the Obama administration, Congress approved a bill on January 26 to extend the transition to June 12, 2009 for consumers.
However, not everyone was happy with the proposed delay. The switch from analog to digital had been in the works for several years in the television and wireless industries and among emergency service agencies and providers. Broadcasters would have had to spend more money, assets, and staff to provide services in both digital and analog formats for another four months, items that were not in their plans for 2009, straining their fiscal budgets in this economic environment further.
On top of the added expenses and strains on equipment and staff due to this delay, it would have caused service constraints on public safety agencies and wireless companies who have been waiting for the past several years to use the airwaves that will be freed by the shutdown of
analog signals. These agencies and companies were geared to go forward on February 17 and might not have had the equipment or financing
they would have needed for the additional four months.
Many small television stations were already reporting their own difficulties with the delay. One rural station in Virginia, WSET, had crews scheduled to begin work on February 18 on the construction of a new digital broadcasting tower. Those crews would have had to seek
employment elsewhere for the next four months and might not have been available when needed for a transition in June.
Several stations in Oregon were waiting for a new transmitter from a broadcaster in El Paso, Texas. But that transmitter wouldn’t have become available until the Texas station switches channel assignments at the government deadline. So the Oregon stations would have had to
plan for an additional four months of dual analog/digital coverage of their broadcasts without a new transmitter to assist them. According
to recent broadcasting industry reports, the delay would have undone carefully mapped transition plans in regional television stations and created additional expenses for those stations to continue to broadcast using two systems. For all of the above issues and concerns, the proposed delay was overturned.
Yet other countries have already converted their broadcast systems from analog to digital without these problems. The British government
has been working with industry representatives since 2001 on this transition. According to the U.K. Department for Business Enterprise
and Regulatory Reform, the British government and industry leaders developed a detailed “Digital Television Action Plan” back in 2004 to
prepare for this transition. In accordance with this plan, the UK:
• Completed two technical trials in 2003 to give the government a better idea of the practical and social issues consumers face when switching from analog to digital television services.
• Carried out an analysis of the costs and benefits of the switchover and identified those groups that are likely to have the most difficulty during digital switchover and developed a “help scheme”, established a professional qualification for aerial installers to help consumers identify competent and trustworthy installers.
As a result of their trials and analyses, the British Government announced in September 2005 that the transition to digital systems would take four years, from 2008 to 2012. In contrast to the U.S., the U.K. is rolling out their transition by region, not nationwide.
The U.S. has not followed the lead of other countries in this transition. The British Government explains its approach as necessary to assure that, “the U.K. continues to be the world leader in broadcasting”. Given the delays and problems in the U.S. transition, the U.K. and other countries have possibly just pulled ahead of the U.S. as broadcast leaders.
Despite these delays and setbacks, most local residents have nothing to worry about. Area residents who receive their television broadcasts from a cable, satellite, or fiber-optic hookup will continue to receive service without interruption on February 17. According to Patrick McElroy, a spokesperson for Cablevision “if you are a Cablevision customer, you will not be affected by the transition”. McElroy stressed that Cablevision will be providing the equipment to convert the signals for their customers automatically. The FCC confirms this:
If you receive your local broadcast stations through a paid provider such as cable or satellite TV, you are already prepared for the DTV transition.
However, if you have an analog TV that does not receive local broadcast stations through your paid provider, you will need a “digital-to analog converter box” to watch digital broadcasts.
If you have a digital TV, a TV with a built-in digital tuner, you are ready for the switch. If your TV is more than 10 years old, it probably
is not digital. If it is less than 10 years old, check your owner’s manual or ask the manufacturer. The FCC stresses that “Only those households who have an analog TV with a rooftop antenna or “rabbit ears” on their television set(s), will not be able to watch full-power
broadcast stations after the DTV conversion unless they get a “digital-to-analog converter box.”
Anyone with broadcast services provided through a satellite, cable, or a fiber-optic network, such as Verizon FIOS, is not affected by this switch since these providers will automatically convert the analog signals to digital for their customers.
Congresswoman Lowey’s office could not tell the Guardian how many households and residents in Westchester County are still unprepared for this switch since the FCC is not reporting its numbers by County. The Guardian also could not find anyone in either the Westchester County Department of Social Services or the Department of Seniors who was following this for their clients. Westchester County appears to
have absolutely no idea how many of our neighbors will be “in the dark”.
It is therefore up to local residents to look out for their less fortunate neighbors. Most individuals who receive their television broadcasts via analog transmissions are easy to identify – they’re the ones with antennae on their rootops, rabbit ears on their television sets, and/or bulky
televisions with manual dials in their living rooms.
Th e Guardian encourages our readers to ask those neighbors if they are prepared for the switchover to digital and provide them with the
FCC phone number, 1-888-DTV-2009, to obtain the $40 coupons for the convertor boxes and guide them to experts if they need additional
equipment. Best Buy stores are providing detailed information on their website and also have a phone line, 1-877-BBY-DTV9, manned with
“DTV experts” to assist consumers with their questions and concerns from 9:00 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week.
Other local stores, such as Berger’s Appliances in Hawthorne, are also offering their technical assistance on this transition to area residents.
Hopefully no one, especially our housebound neighbors, will be left in the dark.