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Dave Roepke, Published March 01 2009

Digital TV ... Frustration mounts for those who thought converter box was enough

The antenna installation business has never been better for Mike Tuck, and it’s breaking his heart.

With the switch to digital television, his workload has been bonkers lately. What would usually be good news is tearing him up because so many of the installations are for senior citizens who need new antennas to keep getting free, over-the-air TV signals.

“This is a big chunk of dollars out of their monthly budgets,” said Tuck, owner of Harold’s Specialty Systems in Moorhead. “I really honestly feel bad about giving these people a bill.”

Though Congress voted in early February to delay the deadline for switching to a digital signal from Feb. 17 to June 12, WDAY is the only area station still broadcasting in analog. So despite the delay, digital is already here.

Yet many over-the-air TV viewers – even those who thought they were prepared – have had a difficult time getting a picture.

“What makes it tough is the general impression among people that if you get the box you’re OK,” said Kenny Steichen, a 46-year-old from Ulen, Minn.

Steichen, a board member for the community organizing group People Escaping Poverty Project, found out the converter isn’t a silver bullet when his apartment complex needed a whole new antenna to get digital.

“I think the converter box thing was very much misunderstood. People felt so relaxed,” said Steve Knutson, owner of Antenna Logic in Hawley, Minn. “It was kind of dumbed down, and it led people to believe it was going to be OK.”

Tuck puts in plainly: “It’s mass confusion.”

So what did all those public service announcements and screen scrawls about converter boxes miss? For starters, DTV is unable to display distorted, but viewable, reception. Say goodbye to the snowy picture.

“It’s either perfect, or it’s not. That’s kind of the root of the problem,” said Jack Anderson, director of engineering for Prairie Public, North Dakota’s statewide public television network.

In addition to being

all-or-nothing, most digital TV also comes on the UHF band. This raises two issues. Old VHF-only antennas need to be replaced. Second, UHF is a range of radio frequencies more prone to interference than the VHF ones lower on the dial, Anderson said. UHF waves have a harder time penetrating objects, meaning the indoor antenna that worked in the basement before might not work with DTV.

Anderson said VHF signals didn’t cause anywhere near as many problems as UHF.

Prairie Public’s Fargo station, KFME, will be switching back to VHF in the next few weeks. Most stations, however, will remain in the UHF band for good. Disruptions will get even worse, Knutson said, when trees start sprouting spring leaves.

This switch to a fussier signal has meant hard choices for people like Pat Delmore, a 64-year-old north Fargo retiree. He was like a lot of people who used an over-the-air antenna –

14 percent of the market at most, according to the most recent Nielsen survey. He heard he needed a digital conversion box, the kind federally subsidized with $40 coupons. He got one and hooked it up.

“I said, ‘Well that’s simple. You put that in and no problem,’ ” Delmore said.

Yet when he plugged in his converter, NBC affiliate KVLY and Prairie Public were missing. It turns out his garage-top antenna, installed shortly after the 1957 tornado, needed to be replaced.

At $350 for equipment and installation, the new antenna was eye-raising to Delmore. He hasn’t bought it, but figures a new antenna is his best option if he wants to continue to have television service.

“Cable is every month you get a bill, and it might go up. This will pay for itself,” Delmore said.

Digital signals get even sketchier on the fringes of coverage areas, especially for the affiliates of the three original networks.

According to models by the Federal Communications Commission, coverage areas will shrink for WDAY, KVLY and KXJB.

The FCC estimates that about 86,400 people live in the area expected to lose KXJB service. For WDAY, that figure is nearly 32,800, and for KVLY, it’s short of 14,600.

Anderson said most stations could broadcast out to their original coverage areas, but it’s not cost-effective because of the price of boosting the power of transmitters enough to serve relatively few people.

Knutson has helped outfit residents on the edges of the coverage areas – both in his neck of the woods in western Minnesota and North Dakota residents from places like Jamestown – with the high-gain antennas needed to get reception in far-flung spots.

One of the biggest frustrations is the variance, Knutson said. Because the UHF band is less robust – at the whim of every unfortunately located tree, hill and building – what works in one house might not work for the neighbors.

“There’s just lots and lots of considerations,” he said.

Charley Johnson, general manager of KVLY and KXJB, said of the hundreds of calls taken by a help line his stations and Prairie Public hosted two weeks ago, about 40 percent were from fringe dwellers. “People are having to work harder,” he said.

Johnson and Anderson agree that too little emphasis was put on new antennas during the ramp up to the digital switch.

“It’s unfortunate,” Anderson said. “I think the antenna is equally important as the converter box.”

Knutson said he doesn’t understand how the need for new antennas could have caught so many by surprise. Antenna suppliers are backlogged, he said, and February is about the worst time to be installing outdoor antennas. “If I was a satellite or cable lobbyist, I would have lobbied for this to happen in the dead of winter,” he said.

Delmore wishes he would have gotten help paying for his antenna instead of his converter box. That’s only fair, Tuck said.

“Seniors should have been compensated for this change,” he said. “There are no ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘buts’ in my mind.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535