Technical Difficulties
Switch to Digital TV May Not Be as Smooth as Advertised

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.

"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.

In a report released last month, the FCC said that 196, or 11 percent, of the nation's 1,749 full-power stations will have a signal that reaches at least 2 percent fewer viewers than their current analog signals. The rest are expected to reach more people after the transition.

Goodstadt said he predicts that significantly more viewers will lose signals because the FCC's report assumes houses have stronger outdoor antennas.

That could leave consumers returning to an activity more suited to the days of dragging a corded rotary phone through the home for privacy: adjusting the antenna with every channel change. Digital signals need more precise positioning than analog signals. Consumers with spotty reception should experiment with rooftop antennas, which can more easily be positioned in the direction of a TV station's tower.

Stuart Lipoff, managing partner at the consulting firm IP Action Partners, said digital signals tend to bounce off buildings and trees, causing interference when they hit antennas at slightly different times. Higher-end converter boxes are equipped with equalizers to cancel out multiple signals and reduce interference. But some of these boxes, which typically cost more than $80, are not eligible to be bought with the $40 government-sponsored coupons.

Keri and Adam Sikich also have poor reception. They had nearly flawless reception when they lived in a south-facing apartment two floors higher in the same building as Powell. But when they moved to a larger unit facing east, they lost all but one local station.

So Keri Sikich, 28, bought a new digital TV. They experimented with four antennas. But their efforts were unsuccessful.

"We're not real sure what we'll do come February," she said.

Nicolle Singer, 29, of the District, said she is concerned that her retired parents, who live in a small Ohio town 60 miles west of Cleveland, will lose the channels they've come to rely on as a main source of news.

"They're annoyed because they feel like they're being forced to get satellite," she said. "Cable service isn't available where they live."

And her father is to reluctant to go on the roof of the two-story house in winter weather to replace the 20-year-old antenna with a stronger one.

The Singers' daughter said she doesn't have to worry about losing signals.

"I don't even have a TV," she said. "I watch everything online."

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