AUGUSTA, Maine — When the last analog TV transmitters are turned off Friday, some Mainers will lose their ability to pick up over-the-air TV signals and the emergency messages that TV stations broadcast. The state and Maine’s congressional delegation are working to address the problem.
“We know there will be people that will lose their reception,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over communication issues. “We need to make sure that everyone can continue to receive the over-the-air stations. I have talked with constituents that still have not gotten a converter box.”
Snowe was referring to the devices that convert a digital signal so it can be displayed on older television sets that receive only analog signals.
Congress provided $40 vouchers to help pay for the converters, which cost $50 to $75 retail.
Complicating the reception problem is that stations may have located their digital transmitters at a different site from where their analog transmitters are located.
Then there is the nature of digital signals themselves. They are line-of-sight, and there are areas where a ridge or hill or even a building may block reception.
Digital transmission also provides a perfect picture or no picture at all, whereas analog signals grow grainy or snowy the farther a receiver is from the transmitter.
Many stations in the state already have switched to digital signals, shutting off their analog transmitters.
Most Mainers have either cable or satellite access to local stations, so they are not affected.
But there are more than 500,000 households in the state, and if Federal Communications Commission estimates are correct, as many as one in 10 receives television broadcasts only over the air.
Snowe has introduced legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that would allow grants to counties and municipalities from a $125 million fund. The money would be used for translator stations, which are basically low-power TV stations that repeat the signals of full-power stations.
“Despite all of the preparations for the switch to digital television, there are still concerns,” Collins said. “I have talked with many people in Maine who have purchased a converter box yet they still cannot receive a digital signal or they are experiencing a drastic decrease in service.”
She noted that in an emergency situation, people turn to TV signals for information, and she wants to minimize the “dead zones” where there is no reception at all.
State Sen. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Utilities Committee, said he has introduced legislation that “would allow cities and towns and counties to apply for any federal grants that do become available to fill in the reception holes.” He said the issue is not just TV reception, but public safety in an emergency.
Suzanne Goucher, president of the Maine Association of Broadcasters, said it is clear from both anecdotal reports and FCC computer models that there are several areas in the state where over-the-air reception of the digital signals is a problem.
“We won’t know the real size of the problem for a few months after the analog transmitters are all turned off,” she said.
Goucher also noted the concerns that Mainers who choose to receive television only over the air will not have access to messages carried by television stations in an emergency.
Hobbins said the grants proposed by Snowe and Collins could well be combined with other funds available under the federal stimulus package for expansion of wireless broadband in rural areas of the country.
“There is no reason they could not co-locate broadband, local public safety radio and the TV translators and save local tax money,” Hobbins said.
In fact, the Snowe legislation specifically states that any tower built with a grant must reasonably accommodate other wireless equipment, including broadband.
Hobbins said space on the towers also could be rented for commercial purposes and provide a revenue stream to pay for the operation of the translators.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of the 2nd District said there is no bill similar to Snowe’s in the House. He said he believes that while the transition to digital transmission was the right policy decision, Congress should now act to make sure as many Americans as possible have access to over-the-air signals.
“I support these efforts and will do what I can to push my House colleagues to resolve these problems,” he said.
The money for the translator fund would come from the $20 billion the federal government received from bids for the use of the broadcast spectrum that can be reassigned after the transition to DTV. The digital transmissions provide a better signal with less bandwidth.
“There is no reason we can’t make this a win-win situation,” Hobbins said.