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The Best Laid Plans . . . Often Go Awry

January 21 2009 by Peter Morrill

As I write this column in mid-January, the press is ablaze with reports of President Obama's proposal to delay the mandated analog TV shutdown scheduled for February 17. The federally run digital TV coupon program has run out of money. Those coupons were intended by Congress to ensure that Americans would be able to continue to receive free, over-the-air television after completion of the digital conversion.

But now it appears that many Idahoans - particularly the elderly and the poor - are going to be left stranded by what is arguably the biggest change in television in our lifetime.

For more than 60 years, the current analog television system has held a special place in the life of our country. It has entertained, informed and guided us during times of emergencies. In an increasingly wired society, it still is our proverbial campfire that we, as a people, gather around to share common experiences.

Digital Planning Underway Since Late 1990s

Since the late 1990's, the TV industry has focused efforts - under the watchful eye of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) - to prepare for the adoption of digital television (DTV). We broadcasters realize there is no turning back now. Analog will shut down; digital is our future.

The conversion to DTV holds many promises. Those who receive over-the-air signals from our transmitters via an antenna, 400,000 viewers as of 2007, and have taken part in the $40 Converter Box Coupon Program or purchased a digital TV, have new viewing opportunities. They now have access to our four fabulous-looking digital channels: IdahoPTV, HD (high definition), Learn and World. There are also new channels available from our local commercial TV colleagues.

The almost two-thirds of Idaho households who have cable or satellite service will not see any change. This also includes most people in translator-served areas.

Unfortunately, analysis suggests that the elderly and the poor are the ones least prepared for this digital conversion. Reasons include the financial shortfall of the federal $40 DTV Converter Box Coupon Program, procrastination, antennas and an inability to deal with the change. This situation was portrayed poignantly in a recent KTVB/Boise news story profiling the digitally unprepared residents of the Idaho Veterans Home in Boise.

DTV Presents Signal Challenges

There is another problem.

The FCC has known for years that its DTV signal standard doesn't go as far, nor does it penetrate mountainous areas as well as analog signals. Either the picture is there or it is not. This is called the "cliff effect." And for some parts of Idaho, the digital signal will be a hit-or-miss proposition, or simply not be there at all. This is true in places like Idaho City, the east side of Emmett, parts of the Portneuf Valley and at least four other areas.

On December 30, after years of complaints from broadcasters and viewers, the FCC began allowing broadcasters to apply for "fill-in" service in areas not well served by DTV transmitters. This was just 45 days before the shutdown date, and more than a decade after the federal mandate to convert to DTV was enacted.

We are preparing license applications to serve these areas. But because of the rushed filing process, we currently do not have the approximately $30,000 - $100,000 per site for the cost of the needed equipment.

Plan for February 17 DTV Conversion Date

So, should the federal government delay the shutdown? Such a delay will cost individual broadcasters (including IdahoPTV) thousands of dollars per month to maintain analog transmitters, during a massive economic downturn. On the other side of the coin, a delay would allow the federal coupon program to get back on track and maybe reduce the number of unprepared homes. These are the issues that will be debated in the coming weeks.

The mark of a good democracy is one that represents the opinions of the majority, but also provides for the needs of the least capable.

So, regardless of whether February 17, 2009, is the last day of analog television in the U.S., take the time now and make sure that your home is ready.

Then do something special. Call your neighbors, and see if they need help.

NOTICE

As this date (1-21-2009), two competing bills are heading into Congress concerning the national DTV transition. Either bill, or a combination of both, may become law. Both bills propose to delay the final analog turn-off date by several weeks.

Follow our Web site - idahoptv.org/dtv - for the most current information and Idaho Public Television's transition plan.

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