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Free but fickle, digital TV reception eludes some

Harry Vanderpool, a beekeeper, lives on a hill nearly 1,000 feet above the Willamette River, outside Salem, Ore. It should be a good spot for TV reception, and it used to be.

But now that analog signals are disappearing, leaving only digital ones, he may be losing all his channels.

“When you listen to the advertisements, it’s ‘Oh, all you have to do is get this little digital converter box and hook it up,’” Vanderpool said. “Well, we get nothing. Zero signal strength.”

While generally better than analog, digital reception with antennas can be tricky. Although millions of people will receive more channels when switching to digital, many others are finding that stations they used to get in analog form won’t come in on their converter boxes or digital TV sets.

In Ionia, Mich., retiree Bruce Jones is down to watching the two or three channels, rather than the dozen he used to get.

“They tell me I need an outdoor antenna, which I just can’t afford,” he said. To spare the $10 for the converter box, he had “cut out a day of groceries.”

It’s not just rural and small-town viewers like Vanderpool and Jones who are having problems with the phase-out of analog TV, which has been on the air for nearly 70 years. It’s being done to give more room on the airwaves to wireless broadband, TV for cell phones and emergency communications.

In Hollywood, broadcast engineer Dana Puopolo gets the local stations fine with an indoor antenna in his bedroom, where he gets a view of the broadcast towers on Mt. Wilson, a dozen miles away. But even an amplified indoor antenna isn’t enough to supply a watchable image to his widescreen TV, which is in the living room on the other side of the apartment.

“You can get it so the picture’s perfect, and then when you sit down, 30 seconds later it pixelates into oblivion,” Puopolo said, describing how the picture breaks up into big chunks of color. “The dirty little secret about digital is that it doesn’t have nearly the coverage of analog.”

A third of the country’s TV stations have already turned off their analog signals. Many of them stuck to the original Feb. 17 deadline set by the government, even though it was hastily extended to June 12 to provide additional funding for converter box coupons. However, most of the stations that have turned off early are in smaller cities and sparsely populated areas. The big-city stations are mostly waiting until June 12.

On Feb. 18, the day after more than 400 stations went all-digital, nearly half of the 25,320 people who called the Federal Communications Commission’s DTV call center did so because of a reception or antenna issue. Of the rest, most called because they had problems relating to the converter boxes or coupons.

There are several issues that conspire to make digital reception tricky. They can be especially vexing because digital broadcasting is an all-or-nothing proposition: You either get a perfect image or you get nothing at all. The only in-between state is the intermittent freezing that Puopolo experienced, which is more irritating than snow or static wandering across the screen of an analog TV.

A study published last year by market research firm Centris estimated that more than half of all households will have problems with digital reception. The study was criticized by several groups as exaggerating the problem. The FCC itself said 5 percent of households were likely to have problems.

Vanderpool’s reception problem is likely due to the fact that nearly all digital signals are in the UHF band, which doesn’t travel well over hills compared with the VHF band – channels 2 through 13, where most major stations broadcast in analog. While Vanderpool is on a hill himself, his home is in a small dell. Even the UHF addition to his antenna doesn’t seem to overcome that.

The FCC official in charge of engineering and technology, Julius Knapp, said that when a station moves from VHF to UHF, there are spots where the signal will not reach as well as it did before, even though overall coverage will be the same.

The good news for people like Vanderpool is that some stations will use their VHF frequencies for digital transmissions after June 12.

But overall, there will be fewer VHF TV signals because channels 2 to 6 in that band are difficult to use for digital transmission, particularly the lowest ones. As Puopolo put it, the electrical noise from a thunderstorm or a passing bus can disrupt a digital TV picture on those frequencies.

And moving digital signals from UHF to VHF carries its own set of problems. Some indoor antennas that have been marketed as being for “HDTV reception” are designed for UHF only and will do a poor job with VHF. In general, it’s difficult to make good indoor antennas for VHF.

Bruce Franca, vice president of policy and technology at the Association for Maximum Service Television, a broadcast industry group, said new “smart” antennas can help a lot of people. These can direct themselves electronically to pick up the best signals, which is particularly useful in households that lie between major cities. In his home outside Washington, D.C., he uses a smart antenna pick up both Washington and Baltimore stations.

“I can watch both the Orioles and Nationals, and you don’t have get up and adjust the antenna,” he said.

Many stations now have an analog antenna at the top of their transmission tower and a digital one mounted lower down on the side of the tower. Many plan to eventually move the digital antenna to the top, which can improve coverage. The FCC also has given stations clearance to put up a new type of small repeater station for digital signals to help with coverage in hard-to-reach pockets.

There are other developments that are likely to improve reception in the future, but it’s not clear if people who have reception problems will have the patience to wait for them, or if they’ll conclude on June 13 that they need to pay for satellite or cable.

Puopolo has already given up on over-the-air TV, expanded his satellite package for $10 a month to get high-definition programming for his widescreen. But, he said, digital TV can catch up, just like color TV did after some initial problems.

“Remember the old color TVs that had color controls? You’d adjust the knob to get a good flesh tone, and then you’d sit down and 10 minutes later the guy would have a purple face, and you’d have to adjust again,” he said. “It’s like any technology – there’s growing pains.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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