Congress delays the digital switch

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By The Staff

By Jimmie Earls

Sun Staff Writer

People fearing the dreaded jump to digital television and the end of analog broadcasts have gotten a temporary reprieve. Last Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 264 to 158 to delay the switch until June 12 to allow more people time to buy the necessary equipment. It was apparent that as the original Feb. 12 deadline approached that many people were still not prepared despite months of warning from the government.

One major problem was that the federal program offering coupons for the purchase of converter boxes ran out of funding and many people were receiving either expired vouchers or not receiving anything at all. The coupons, which look like gift cards, expire 90 days after they are issued.

Although there is a current lack of funding for the program, people may still apply for them and they will be placed on a waiting list. As unused vouchers expire, that money will be placed back into the program to provide more coupons. President Obama’s stimulus plan currently up before Congress will also provide another $650 million toward funding the program. If you still need to apply for the vouchers, visit www.dtv2009.gov. Each household address is allowed to apply once and the coupons must be used before the expiration date. If you do not use them and they expire, you cannot receive additional coupons.

The legislation that passed last week will allow some stations to turn off their analog signal and make the switch to digital earlier. What the new deadline has done is create a Wild West scenario where instead of everyone complying with one date, everyone is free to pick and choose their own date as long as it happens by the mandatory June 12 deadline, thus confusing the viewing public as to who is switching and when.

“I know for sure what we are going to do,” said Tim Gilbert, general manager for WLEX in Lexington. “We are going to continue transmitting on analog and digital bands at least past the February 17 deadline and probably will comply with the new June 12 cutoff date.”

According to Gilbert, the only Lexington area station that will comply with the original Feb 17 date is WTVQ, who will shutdown their analog signal on that date. That was confirmed by WTVQ’s Web site at www.wtvq.com/dtv.html.

While some stations will cease analog broadcasts on Feb. 17 and some will wait until the June 12 date, some stations in the area will split the difference. WKYT in Lexington will stop their analog transmission in mid-April.

“We’re going to carry our analog transmission until April 13,” said WKYT general manager Wayne Martin. “Our reason is that while we spent a lot of money and time trying to educate our viewers on the Feb 17 cutoff, the federal government has not kept enough money in the program for everybody to get their coupons and some retailers have run out of converter boxes. So we feel we should at least go another couple months.”

Although they were informing viewers that they were making the switch on the original Feb 12 date, WAVE in Louisville recently decided to push back their date to June 12. Just remember that all stations must be digitally-exclusive by June 12, some stations will make the switch sooner. Please visit your local television station's Web site or contact them for more details.

Low-powered television stations, such as Channel 6 in Lebanon will not be affected by the transition for now. They will continue to send out an analog signal well past the new Federal deadline in June. Eventually, these smaller stations will cease their analog signals, but that may be a year away.

"We don't have the same mandates that full-power stations have," said Gary White, owner of Channel 6. "The federal government is allocating funds to assist these stations with the transition. Channel 6 will meet with the FCC in October about that issue. So we are going to be going digital, perhaps a year from now at the very most, but there's no set time frame."

Once Channel 6 goes digital, their coverage area will increase to four times their current area. That will mean viewers using an antenna in Bardstown will be able to pick up Channel 6's broadcast. Channel 6's wattage power will increase along with their antenna height. The station will go from 70 watts of power to 300 digital watts and their antenna will go from the current tower height of 100 feet to 200 feet.

The switch to digital also means each station can offer multi-casting, providing various channels of content. For example, channel 3 will become channel 3.1 and will offer regular network programing, while channel 3.2 might offer movies and 3.3 could offering 24 hour local weather information.

In case you were wondering what will happen to the wavelengths that will no longer be used by television stations for broadcasting, wireless companies like Verizon and AT&T have paid billions of dollars to access the spectrum and will use that airspace to introduce new products and services. So the delay in the switch not only costs the television stations money, but also costs the wireless companies money because they cannot use the frequencies that they have paid for.

Regardless of when a particular station shuts off their analog signal, the best thing you can do as a consumer is make sure you are ready for the switch as soon as possible. That way you will not wake up one morning and find nothing but static on your screen.

For more information, visit the National Association of Broadcasters at www.dtvanswers.com or call 1-888-DTV-2009.