GAO Finds Hurdles In Digital TV Switch

(Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP)
By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Television broadcasters face a number of technical hurdles and coordination issues as they prepare for the digital TV transition, raising concerns that some viewers may be left in the dark, according to a report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office.

The report found that most broadcast stations have made "substantial progress" in changing to digital signals. But it also highlighted critical problems, such as building antenna towers and financing transition costs, that will need to be addressed before broadcasters shut off analog signals Feb. 17.

The nationwide switch to digital technology will free up a large swath of airwaves that will be used for new wireless services and public safety communications. Digital signals generally provide better-quality picture and sound than old-fashioned analog. Nationwide, about 70 million TVs rely on antennas to receive over-the-air signals. To keep watching TV after the transition, consumers using analog TVs will need to buy boxes, buy a digital TV or subscribe to cable or satellite service.

About 91 percent of the 1,122 television stations surveyed are already airing digital signals, and 68 percent are transmitting the signal at full strength and are using the channel from which they will broadcast after the transition date, which will minimize disruption to analog consumers when the switch happens.

But other stations have a lot of work to do during the next nine months to ensure their audiences continue to get TV signals after the switch. While nearly all the stations surveyed said they had plans to broadcast digital signals, 13 percent said they still needed to install or relocate their digital antennas -- a process that could take as long as nine months. Nearly one-quarter of stations indicated that they would be moving their digital signals to their current analog channel number, a change that could cause service interruptions.

The GAO report also found that many consumers may not receive a signal at all after the transition, as 11 percent of the stations said they expected to lose over-the-air viewers after the transition because digital signals would reduce their broadcast coverage areas. On average, those stations anticipate losing 23,000 viewers.

"Viewers must be made aware of possible signal coverage changes through consumer education so they do not mistakenly believe that their converter box is defective," said Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, who requested the GAO report.

The report also found that some stations were awaiting decisions from the Federal Communications Commission, such as approval for a construction permit or for changes to their final digital channel. The FCC said it addressed many of these issues after the GAO had completed its survey and said it would continue to work closely with broadcasters to prepare for the transition.

For many broadcasters, the biggest obstacles are the high costs associated with equipment changes, such as buying a new digital antenna to replace the old analog antenna, installing new broadcast transmitters and building towers.

"This is quite a bit of money we're talking about," said Don Murray, an engineer with the NBC affiliate in Miami, which is already operating its new digital facilities. Digital transmitters are much more expensive than analog transmitters, he said, and the technology requires a lot of fine-tuning to make sure it reaches the broadcast coverage areas.

Coordinating the switch-over can be tricky, even for stations already airing digital broadcasts, and individual challenges will likely need to be addressed in each market.

For example, to avoid having to switch out equipment at midnight Feb. 17, when winter weather could be a hindrance, some broadcasters intend to shut off their analog signals early to minimize disruption. But doing so also may involve relocating digital signals to a slightly different frequency, which is not allowed if it will interfere with the signals of other channels still operating near that frequency.

Only a handful of crews are available to physically change antennas on towers, making coordination between stations even more important to service all the country's transmission towers, Markey said.

The Senate Commerce Committee chairman, Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), expressed concern that consumers are still unaware of the "potential pitfalls" of the transition.

"Such early termination may confuse consumers and leave them scrambling for converter boxes before the end of the transition," Inouye said in a statement. "The FCC will need to work very closely with broadcasters to ensure consumers are educated about how the decisions of their local broadcasters will impact them."

Broadcasters also need to coordinate with the pay-TV operators to make sure cable and satellite facilities are able to receive digital signals when the analog signals are shut off, the report said.

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