A digital black hole?

Posted Jan. 09, 2009, at 8:42 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:04 a.m.

The state’s tricky topography could pose a problem for some Mainers who are preparing for the long-awaited switch to digital television.

Because of the way digital signals are transmitted, some who live in remote areas may not be able to get some channels at all.

“The issue is that digital and analog signals are propagated in different ways,” said Suzanne Goucher, president and CEO of the Maine Association of Broadcasters. “The way a signal travels across a terrain, with analog, it fades gradually, but you can still get a picture. With digital, it’s all or nothing.”

So who is susceptible to these potential black holes?

A couple of Web sites are devoted to answering that question: www.antennaweb.org and www.tvfool.com. Each site allows residents of Maine and elsewhere to type in their home address and then see how far they are from each tower affiliated with the major television networks and the local public broadcasting stations.

The Federal Communications Commission Web site also has maps that outline digital signal contours in each state and how they differ from their analog counterparts.

“These are some of the best resources out there,” said Wayne Jortner, senior counsel for the Maine Public Advocate’s Office. “There are absolutely going to be places where a digital signal doesn’t reach.”

The Web sites are not foolproof, though. A number of variables can affect a signal’s reach, such as whether a residence has aluminum siding, whether an antenna is on a roof or placed near a window, or whether any other obstructions affect the line between antennas and transmitters.

According to Goucher, about 87,000 households in Maine still rely on free over-the-air analog TV signals. That number is about a year old, though, and is likely much lower today. Many have suggested that the switch from analog to digital was designed, at least in part, to get more people to buy cable or satellite TV contracts.

“It does seem like they want me to get cable,” said John Greenman, who lives in Old Town and relies on a simple antenna for his TV needs. “But I don’t need or want it.”

Even in Old Town, which is in the Greater Bangor TV market, Greenman said he’s concerned about losing signals. More remote areas, such as Lincoln, Brownville Junction, Dover-Foxcroft and nearly all of Washington and Aroostook counties, are likely to be far more susceptible to signal loss.

The two Web sites are useful in identifying areas that are likely to be most affected. The TVFool Web site even offers suggestions about what consumers need to do to improve their chances of getting digital signals, such as what type of antenna to get.

“We’re encouraging people that if they are using rabbit ears — and many people still do — to make sure they have a UHF capability,” Goucher said. “All digital signals are broadcast in the UHF.”

Unfortunately, consumers who need to upgrade their antennas will have to do so on their own dime. There is no coupon program for that like the one offered by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, for digital converter boxes.

“I’m sure some people might be upset by that,” said Jortner of the Maine Public Advocate’s Office. “A good antenna could cost $50-$100 plus installation, and that’s prohibitive for some people.”

Jortner said all of the public awareness about the signal switch focused on the converter boxes, not on antennas. Only recently has the NTIA been educating people about signal strength changes.

“It wasn’t a matter of overlooking it,” Goucher countered. “We tried to educate first that this was coming. It probably would have been meaningless last January to be talking about signal strength and antennas.”

Even the converter box issue has become problematic for some. In Maine, and all over the country, consumers who rely on free over-the-air TV channels are finding it hard to get coupons for the necessary digital converter boxes.

The NTIA budgeted a certain amount for the $40 coupons and the coupons have run out, although it’s important to note that not everyone who requested a coupon has redeemed it. Once the deadline on those coupons runs out, new rebates can be issued.

“It’s not out of money, just coupons,” Goucher explained. “Coupons currently are being redeemed at a rate of 53 percent. The rest are expiring. The problem is, the [NTIA] can’t overextend. It has to wait for coupons to expire. Lately, there has been a rush or sudden surge of coupons.”

With all the attention and publicity that has been paid to the imminent switch from analog to digital television signals, it’s hard to imagine that it could have crept up on people.

Yet here we are, about a month away, and President-elect Barack Obama is calling on the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration to consider delaying the Feb. 17 deadline. Some stations, including all Maine Public Broadcasting Network stations, are making the switch as early as next week.

Sen. Olympia Snowe recently encouraged Mainers to act quickly and apply for coupons, even if they have to be put on a waiting list. Those on the waiting list would get coupons once others expire.

“I will continue to work with the administration and Congress to see that every household in America will have the opportunity to be a part of this new era for television,” Snowe said in a statement this week.

Greenman said he thinks the matter is still unresolved and predicts it will go to Congress.

In fact, Obama’s transition team co-chairman John Podesta wrote to “key lawmakers Thursday saying the digital transition needs to be delayed largely because the Commerce Department has run out of money for coupons to subsidize digital TV converter boxes for consumers,” The Associated Press reported.

Jortner agreed with Greenman that lawmakers will feel compelled to act, but he’s not sure what they can legitimately do.

“I think some elected representatives feel that this switch drops too many people from receiving free signals,” he said. “But there’s nothing in the Constitution that enables people to [have] free TVs or free antennas.”

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