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Technical Difficulties

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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Joyce Powell can get a dozen analog channels with her seven-year-old television set. But when she hooked up a converter box to prepare for next month's transition to digital broadcasts, she discovered that she couldn't receive any local channels, even though the stations' transmission towers are a few miles from her Wisconsin Avenue apartment building.

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"I thought all I had to do was buy a box and hook it up," said Powell, 72. "That's what you're led to believe by all the ads."

In less than a month, on Feb. 17, all full-power stations plan to shut off analog signals and air digital-only broadcasts. Viewers with older analog TV sets will need to hook up a converter box to receive over-the-air programs. Digital TV sets will automatically receive the new signals. Cable and satellite subscribers should not be affected by the switch.

But many consumers are discovering that upgrading to a digital set or adding a converter box may not be enough to get a reliable digital signal. Some will also have to buy more powerful antennas to install in living rooms or on roofs, adding expense and frustration for the nearly 14 million households who rely on over-the-air signals.

"People are very surprised when they realize they can't get [the channels]," said Barry Goodstadt, an independent analyst who has been studying digital reception issues. He predicts that 70 percent of households with indoor "rabbit ear" antennas will have to upgrade to more powerful equipment.

Problems with television antennas and reception were the most common issues among residents of Wilmington, N.C., a city that switched to all-digital broadcasting in September as a test case for the Federal Communications Commission.

Most consumers were aware the switch was coming due to a marketing and public education blitz by federal officials and broadcasters. Still, 75 percent of consumers who called help lines reported that their converter boxes did not appear to be working, according to a team of student volunteers answering calls. More than half of the callers were advised to either change the direction of their antenna and to have their converter boxes scan for channels.

"We had to say, 'Your antenna is not powerful enough, or you don't have one, or it's pointed in the wrong direction, or the height needs to be raised,' " said Connie Book, a professor at Elon University who led the students.

In the Washington region, about 15 percent of households that rely on over-the-air signals could lose up to four stations with digital signals, Goodstadt's research shows. About 58 percent of households nationwide are likely to lose one or more channels with current equipment, including rooftop antennas, according to a report released last week by the research firm Centris.

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. Others will receive fewer digital channels than with analog and may have to buy extra equipment to pull in the channels.

New digital audiences will probably discover the "digital cliff" the all-or-nothing quality of digital reception. The picture is excellent until the signal weakens or is interrupted, causing the picture to disappear completely. Digital signals are supposed to travel farther over flat terrain, but they are susceptible to interference from hills, trees, buildings, bad weather or planes flying overhead. An analog picture degrades gradually, getting more static and snow as signals weaken.

To complicate the situation, some broadcasters' digital coverage areas vary slightly from their current coverage areas, so some viewers at the edge of a station's range will not consistently receive signals.


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