10 Days Later

Okay, I’ll grudgingly give the FCC some credit where credit is due; I’m not sure that the end of analog television broadcasts on June 12 was the complete train wreck that I expected it to be. But I also give FCC Acting Chairman Michael Copps credit for being honest about the fact that it was not all cookies and cream. “This was never going to be an easy transition, as I have said many times. It appears to have worked well for the majority of over-the-air viewers, but for those who are experiencing a less-satisfactory outcome, we are committed to staying on the job to help.”

Clearly, many people experienced a “less-satisfactory outcome.” By the FCC’s own tally, their toll-free support line handled more than 900,000 phone calls in the week from June 8 to June 14. More than a third of those were received on Friday, June 12, which was the day most stations cut off their analog broadcasts for good. Note that this only includes the calls to the FCC hotline. The calls to the hundreds of local stations across the country could easily add several hundred thousand more calls to this total.

According to the FCC, 28% of the calls requested help with installing or configuring digital converter boxes that allow TV sets with only analog tuners to receive the digitl TV signals. Another 49% — just about half of the total — called because they were having reception problems. And this just what I expected.

Part of the problem may have been that people with digital tuners — either in a converter box or in a TV set — did not know to rescan after the transition. As part of the switch over, stations in many markets changed their broadcast frequency. (Note that the broadcast frequency is not directly related to the “channel” number that has been assigned to a station.)

Even after rescanning, however, many people continued to have difficulties. Right here in Philadelphia, many people could not receive Channel 6, the local ABC affiliate. Before the transition, the digital broadcasts for this station were in the UHF range, but after the switch the station moved the signal to its assigned frequency in the VHF range. Many people in Philadelphia couldn’t receive the signal, and the FCC has since granted permission for a temporary power boost to see if that helps resolve the problems. Part of the problem, however, is that many people have been sold “digital” TV antennas that actually are no different than that required for an analog TV, except that many of these new antennas are designed to only receive signals in the UHF range. Some people mistakenly thought that none of the new digital broadcasts would be in the VHF range, but that’s not the case. In many major markets, some stations are still broadcasting in the VHF range. To receive these signals, you need at least a set of “rabbit ears”: the kind of antenna with two rods (as opposed to must UHF antennas which are just a wire loop). If you go to www.antennaweb.org, you can find a listing of the television stations that you can expect to receive at your location, and which ones are VHF or UHF.

It will take a bit more time to sort all this out, and I expect to see a surge in new cable and satellite subcriptions for June as people give up with trying to resolve problems with the free broadcasts. The transition wasn’t as bad as I expected, but it wasn’t smooth either. About the best I can say is that I’m very glad it’s behind us. Now the various segments of the broadcast spectrum will be freed up, and we’ll start seeing some interesting new services become available, such as the FloTV mobile TV service available on cell phones from AT&T and Verizon.