Digital, Ready or Not

Posted Jan. 22, 2009, at 6:10 p.m.

The television switchover from analog to digital will soon be upon us, and most Mainers are ready for it. Maine’s public television has already switched. Other stations will make the change on Feb. 17. Already, however, there are troubling signs that the switch will not be seamless for all, and there is a push in Congress to delay the mandated shutoff of analog signals.

A delay will only put off problems and add to the confusion surrounding the conversion. Instead, lawmakers in Washington and Augusta should work to ensure resources are available to ease the switchover.

Those who subscribe to cable or satellite or have digital-ready TVs don’t need to do anything. Most Mainers who have been getting an analog signal free have already bought and installed the necessary set-top converter boxes to let them get digital programming. Many used the government coupons that paid $40 of the cost of the boxes.

But the Federal Communications Commission underestimated the demand for the coupons and has run out of the money allocated for them. Now there’s a waiting list, and coupons are being issued only to replace unused coupons that have passed their three-month expiration date. That means that many coupons will arrive only after Feb. 17. A small appropriation, not a six-month delay of the digital conversion, can fix this problem.

Blind spots will be a more serious problem. In some places people won’t get some of the digital transmissions even though they have installed the boxes. That’s because digital signals drop off completely at the edge of their range. The FCC estimates that WMEB-TV, the public broadcasting station in the Bangor market, has lost 12,785 viewers; it gained 69,474 viewers with its Jan. 11 switch to digital-only broadcasts. For those who got public broadcasting and now don’t, the problem is real and solutions vexing.

A new antenna may help. The FCC advises first trying to use your existing antenna, making sure that it provides good quality reception on analog channels 2 to 51. Before you make any changes in your current antenna, the FCC says you should check with neighbors to see whether others in your area can receive digital programs.

If you seem to be having an individual problem, the agency advises changing the location of your antenna or changing its direction. And if you use “rabbit ears,” make sure your system covers both VHF and UHF. You may need to substitute a special indoor antenna for the rabbit ears.

The FCC in December authorized television stations to install repeaters to improve service in remote areas. This is not a mandate, however, and stations may not want to take on this new expense. If large numbers of Maine residents are left without over-the-air television, the FCC and the state may want to consider a mandate.

Whether the deadline holds or is moved ahead, some TV users will have problems. The FCC has answers to most questions on its Web page www.dtv.gov.

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