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American television is going digital on Feb. 17. Or is it?

American television is going digital on Feb. 17. Or is it?

In 2005, Congress mandated that broadcasters switch from analog to digital broadcasts. In addition to being more efficient, digital frees up valuable chunks of wireless spectrum. The newly available room on the airwaves can be used for commercial wireless services as well as for emergency-response networks.

For those households that have cable or satellite service, the change will be no problem. People who don’t have cable or satellite service or a new TV with a digital tuner will need the converter boxes to keep their older analog sets working. The government allocated funds to institute a coupon program, which allows consumers to request up to two $40 vouchers per household to help pay for the boxes, which generally cost between $40 and $80 each and can be purchased without a coupon.

However, those funds have been depleted, and a waiting list for coupon requests began on Jan. 4, meaning that consumers who have applied since then are unlikely to receive their vouchers before the Feb. 17 conversion date. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, reported that it had hit a $1.34-billion funding limit set by Congress to pay for converter box coupons. Currently, the agency is only sending coupons to people on the list as unredeemed coupons in circulation expire, thus freeing up more money for the program. The waiting list has requests for 1.1 million coupons.

President-elect Barack Obama has urged Congress to postpone the Feb. 17 switch from analog to digital television broadcasting, arguing that too many Americans who rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air channels won’t be ready. The Obama team decided to push for a delay because officials are concerned that the government is not doing enough to help Americans, particularly those in rural, poor or minority communities, prepare for and navigate the transition. There is a concern that because coupons are unavailable and support and education has been insufficient in some areas, the most vulnerable of Americans will be exposed.

“I believe we’ve done an excellent job locally to educate the public about the transition,” said WLBT general manager Dan Modisett. “And I personally don’t think the conversion will be postponed. At this point, that would be like changing the tires while the car is moving.”

Stuart Kellogg, general manager of WAPT in Jackson makes a similar analogy: “It’s like final exams are coming up and everyone knows when they are.” Kellogg said there will be those people who will prepare and study all along, and those who will wait to the last minute and try to cram. “Not everyone will be prepared, and that’s just human nature.”

Kellogg said if he was a betting man — and he is not — he would bet that the conversion will be delayed. “From what I understand, it may be postponed until after Memorial Day. Of course, that will take an act of Congress.”

And that’s why Modisett doesn’t believe the delay will happen. “To have an act of Congress, there must first be public hearings, and before those can be held, notices of the hearings must be made. With about a month from the conversion date, I don’t see how that can possibly happen.”

While all television stations are required to convert to digital broadcasting by Feb. 17, many are opting to convert early. “We have the option to go digital early,” explained Kellogg. WAPT is part of the Hearst-Argyle Television group. “One of our stations in Honolulu has already made the switch.” WLBT, a Raycom Media Station, also has a station in Honolulu that has converted. “We also have a station in Wilmington, Del., which was a test market for the digital conversion,” Modisett said. “They spent a lot of time, money and resources and still, there were people who weren’t ready. Yet, within 30 days, everyone was pretty much on board.”

For those who receive their television “over the air,” which is about one in 10 Mississippians, the conversion to digital will require that they either sign up for cable or satellite service, get a converter box or purchase a new digital TV. “For some, the converter box will be a simple solution,” Modisett stated. “They can just hook it up, scan for the stations, and they’ll be ready to go. For others, it will be a bit more difficult, requiring them to hook it up, scan, adjust the antenna, scan again until they get the signal. A lot depends on where the TV is located. Factors such as hills, direction a home is located in relation to the station, etc. will affect the reception.”

The next few weeks will determine whether Feb. 17 will be the final conversion date, or if there will be a delay. “Being tied in with a local retailer has made the education process a lot easier for our viewers,” he said. The station has partnered with Cowboy Maloney, which sells the converter boxes, antennas and HD televisions. “People have been able to go into the stores and get first-hand information and explanations from their staff, and pick up any supplies they’ll need to be prepared. But even with that, if the conversion takes place on February 17, there will still be folks who will wake up on the 18th with no television signal. But the same thing will happen, in my opinion, if there is a delay until later in the year.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Susan Marquez at larssue@aol.com .

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