By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
The government-ordered switch to digital television broadcasting next year promises razor-sharp picture and orchestra-like sound -- that is, if the signal actually comes in.
Jennifer Jackson, a 26-year-old medical student who lives in Arlington, is discovering that despite her efforts, it might not. She has a digital converter box, the receiver of choice for those who rely on an antenna and do not have a digital television. But she is finding that the new digital signals are more capricious than old-fashioned analog.
The picture's clarity is impressive, she said, until an airplane flies by on its way to nearby Reagan National Airport -- a frequent event in her 20th-floor apartment. Airplane traffic used to cause seconds-long bouts of fuzziness in the analog picture. But digital signals are more sensitive to disruption, so the sound mutes and the screen freezes, sometimes dissolving into a cascade of pixels. Similar glitches happen when her roommate walks through certain parts of the living room.
"The picture's great when I get good reception," said Jackson, who had wrapped her "rabbit-ear" antenna in aluminum foil to boost analog reception, "but it can be annoying when you're trying to pay attention to a show and the picture keeps falling apart."
The nation's broadcasters will shut off traditional, over-the-air TV signals as they move to all-digital programming Feb. 17. But questions remain about whether the digital signals will consistently reach the 14 million households that depend on antennas to receive broadcasts.
A large number of viewers who hook up a converter box, or use a newer digital TV, will have clearer reception and more channels than they did with analog broadcasts. For some, the improved quality could serve as a replacement for more-expensive basic cable service. But some consumers may have to buy extra equipment to reliably pull in as many channels as they did before the switch, especially if they live in rural areas or near tall trees or buildings.
"The government's message for consumers is that all they need is a converter box or digital TV," said David Klein, executive vice president of Centris, a market research firm. "That's an oversimplification of what's going to happen."
In the Washington area, about 56 percent of the 370,000 households watching over-the-air broadcasts may need to upgrade their antennas, according to Centris. Nationwide, Centris estimates that about half such households will need a new antenna.
Most broadcasters are already airing digital broadcasts along with analog programming, but some digital antennas are not in their final positions on transmission towers. In February, when digital antennas replace analog equipment -- by being moved from the side of the tower to the top, for example -- reception should improve, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Locally, many major network stations said they were already broadcasting at full digital power and have moved their digital antenna to the top of their towers, so viewers should not notice major reception changes in February. Most of the local towers are in Northwest Washington.
People using antennas to get signals on older analog TV sets will need a converter box, which costs $40 to $80, to keep watching TV, and they can apply for a $40 government-sponsored coupon to offset the cost. Digital TVs will receive the digital broadcasts but will still need an antenna's help. Cable and satellite subscribers who receive digital programming should not have to do anything for the transition.
What new digital audiences have to fear is the "digital cliff," or the all-or-nothing quality of digital reception. The picture is excellent until the signal weakens or is interrupted, causing the picture to disappear, and it is more sensitive to interference from hills, trees, buildings and bad weather than traditional analog reception. An analog picture degrades gradually, getting more static and snow as signals weaken.
The FCC questioned the validity of the Centris data, arguing that the data assumed all consumers used indoor antennas and did not consider the fact that many stations are not yet operating at full digital power. The agency will test the transition in September in Wilmington, N.C., to address potential problems -- including technical glitches such as reception shortfalls.
To complicate the situation, some broadcasters' digital coverage areas vary slightly from their current analog coverage areas, meaning some viewers on the edge of coverage areas will not consistently receive signals. FCC engineers estimate that about 15 percent of viewers live in these fringe areas, and about 5 percent of those, or 1 percent of current analog households, will need new antennas.
Some TV watchers have found they cannot always receive as many digital channels as they did with analog broadcasts. Mike Mellish of Silver Spring said that he was generally pleased with digital reception but that he could not pick up the local PBS broadcasts now that the leaves have grown back on the trees around his house, even with an older rooftop antenna. He sometimes gets spotty reception on other stations, which he attributes to bad weather and other unknown obstacles.
"One evening they might come in great," he said, "and the next, nothing."
Consumer advocates say the federal agencies in charge of the digital transition have not informed consumers of potential reception gaps, which will cause more frustration when the switch happens.
"A lot of consumers will have to upgrade their antennas, and the government hasn't been entirely clear about the amount of money people will have to shell out for this change that it has mandated," said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union.
TV reception could also be affected when some local stations switch to sending their signals over slightly different radio frequencies after the transition. That change, however, will be invisible on consumers' channel display.
Digital signals typically do not travel as far as the old analog signals, according to research by Oded Bendov, who is president of TV Transmission Antenna Group and who will replace broadcast antennas on the Empire State Building. Every city will experience different reception challenges, he said, depending largely on the local landscape. Bendov said that about half of the viewers who now receive analog channels would not reliably receive all of their digital replacements and that viewers more than 40 miles from a broadcast tower would probably need new equipment.
Consumers may have to adjust their antennas to point them in the direction of the TV station's broadcasting towers. That's because digital signals need more precise positioning than analog signals, said David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television, a broadcast industry group.
Donovan recommends that consumers try to get digital broadcasts with their current antennas. If they find spotty reception, consumers should then experiment with outdoor or rooftop antennas, which can more easily be positioned in a clear path of the digital signals, he said.
Francis Haynes, 77, had always gotten 24 analog stations, including several Baltimore broadcasts, but he lost five of them after switching to digital, meaning he lost some of his favorite programs.
His picture improved when he put a more powerful antenna in his attic, but he sometimes misses a few channels. Haynes, a retired engineer, wants to buy a larger antenna for his roof to pick up more signals, but his Fairfax condominium association won't allow it.
"I'm still having some trouble -- sometimes the stations flicker on and off," he said.