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Time running out for FCC, others to troubleshoot

Wendy Reilly said she's "just another not-so-happy camper" when it comes to February's much-trumpeted switch from analog to digital television. The Saginaw woman and her husband dutifully purchased a digital converter box for their old TV and the...

Wendy Reilly said she's "just another not-so-happy camper" when it comes to February's much-trumpeted switch from analog to digital television. The Saginaw woman and her husband dutifully purchased a digital converter box for their old TV and then sat back to enjoy the crystal-clear picture and all the extra channels it promised.

But "only [when] they worked," she lamented in a letter to the News Tribune. "Our Channel 10 has rarely come in good enough to watch. The digits break up constantly. Channel 3 has the same problem, but not as often. We have been very disappointed."

And far from alone.

Last month, Wilmington, N.C., made the digital switch early, as a sort of test run for the rest of us. The results weren't encouraging. Reception problems -- including "digital cliffs," in which a digital picture goes from clear to gone at the slightest interference -- prompted the Federal Communications Commission to estimate that 150,000 to 200,000 homes across the country were in danger of being similarly plagued. In addition, 15 percent of all viewers, most in the sort of rural areas common to the Northland, may not be able to receive digital signals at all. Even if they've long enjoyed analog reception.

"The experiment in Wilmington shows that there is still a lot more work to be done," Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said last month. She fired off letters to the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, demanding action that's obviously still needed. They, along with local governments, broadcasters and others have just 135 days to step up not only with alerts that the switch is coming but with ways to troubleshoot problems.

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Technical information has been frustratingly absent thus far. "We called the number on TV [to the FCC but] to no avail," Wendy Reilly wrote. "They do not deal with technical difficulties. What we do now [is] whenever we want to watch channel[s] 10 or 3, we have to disconnect our [digital converter] box. But then we lose the other extra channels. ... It's a hassle."

And come Feb. 17, when the digital switchover is scheduled, abandoning digital for analog will no longer be an option.

The switchover doesn't affect cable or satellite television customers. But in the Duluth area, at least 28 percent -- nearly a third -- of televisions use traditional rabbit-ear antenna reception and will be affected, according to research conducted by Nielsen Media Research. The percentage is one of the highest of any city in the nation. While 28,231 coupons for $40 toward the purchase of a digital converter box have been requested in Duluth, only 14,571 have been redeemed. At least 13,600 TVs in Duluth aren't ready -- and don't even know yet whether they'll experience reception problems.

"We want people to be able to enjoy uninterrupted service but also to receive any needed emergency notices which may be transmitted by our broadcast affiliates," Duluth Mayor Don Ness said last week while announcing a long-needed public meeting Thursday on the issue. "It's important that people take the needed steps before the changeover date."

Time is running short.

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