Unconverted Masses

The switch to digital television is supposed to be simple. It's not

PHOTO: Tekla Perry

This is an expanded version of ”Digital Dilemma,” a Spectral Lines editorial published in IEEE Spectrum, October 2008.

When the U.S. Congress voted in 2006 to stop over-the-air broadcasts of analog television on 17 February 2009, it assured the public that going digital would be cheap and painless. It allocated US $1.5 billion to help fund converter boxes for what was supposedly the tiny minority of U.S. households that rely on over-the-air TV—that is, that don’t subscribe to a cable or satellite television service.

Turns out several of those assumptions were wrong. So far, about one-third of the fund has been drawn upon, in the form of some 13 million coupons, each worth $40 towards the purchase of a converter box. If my experience is typical, the coupons are just the first step in a conversion process that is neither painless nor, in the long run, cheap.

I ordered two coupon cards back in January; they arrived in April with an expiration date of 14 July. In June I purchased a $50 RCA converter box at Walmart, the only brand in stock. Radio Shack offers a different brand but was sold out.

Attaching the converter to a Mitsubishi television in the family room, on the first floor of my house, was straightforward, even though the setup includes a DVD player. I plugged my antenna’s cable into one port and ran the included cable from the converter box to an antenna port on the DVD. The box itself is tiny and unobtrusive, but watching digital television is going to use more power. For analog television I merely turned on the TV. Now I have to turn on the TV, turn on the DVD and set it to channel 3, and then turn on the converter box.

Once I did all that, I scanned for available channels. And here’s where the nightmare started. The television’s built-in analog tuner had gotten great reception on all the major networks, a local nonaffiliated television station, and a Spanish-language channel, all in the VHF band. I also got fuzzy but watchable reception for six UHF channels.

Using the converter box, I got great reception on one PBS station. That actually gave me four different video streams because it’s broadcasting multiple standard-definition programs instead of one high-definition program. In addition, I got reasonable reception on four Spanish- and Chinese-language channels. The digital pictures of two other networks, ABC and NBC, broke up constantly and were unwatchable. CBS had gone missing.

I still had one coupon, so I went back to Radio Shack, hoping that a different converter box would do better. On 11 July, Radio Shack was still sold out. Since my coupon would expire in three days, the salesperson offered to take it and an additional $20 and have the converter, a $60 Digital Stream model, sent directly from the warehouse. I would get it in five days.

Ten days later I called to check on my order. It hadn’t left the warehouse. In fact, 200 000 converter boxes ordered in recent days hadn’t left the warehouse. A store manager suggested I buy one of the boxes now in stock at the full price and return it when the box on order arrived.

The connection process was the same as for the RCA box. The onscreen graphics are a little nicer, but I never found a comprehensive program guide, which made channel selection difficult. And the digital reception was no better.

My basic problem? Like most people who watch broadcast television, I get my signals through an antenna on my roof: a bent, cobwebbed, aluminum monstrosity that is, it turns out, optimized for VHF signals. Most digital channels come in on the UHF band.

So I next installed an indoor antenna—an RCA flat antenna that lists for $60. No improvement.

I convinced my husband to climb up on the roof and replace the VHF antenna with an $80 C2 UHF antenna from Antennas Direct. A Web site, antennapoint.com, tells you how to point a UHF antenna toward the transmitters; I sent my kids hunting through their toy boxes for a compass.

The new antenna didn’t improve reception on the first-floor Mitsubishi television, but it made a difference for my second-floor Sony television. Now I’m getting most of the broadcasts I got with analog reception, along with the CW and Ion networks (my kids are thrilled about CW), and lots of Spanish and Chinese stations. Fox still breaks up but is sometimes watchable at night. I still can’t get Channel 4, a former NBC affiliate that is now independent.

The local terrain may be responsible for many of my problems, says Ernest Neumann, the station’s director of broadcast operations; UHF doesn’t propagate through hills and other obstacles. Or my problem might stem from multipath interference. In urban environments, a strong digital signal can bounce around, and many tuners can’t sort out the information, although software in the newer tuners does better than some of the older ones. The situation may improve in August 2009, when San Francisco’s digital transmitters go up on a new tower, 45 meters higher than their current position, tucked below the analog transmitters.

But, given that I have at least some reception upstairs, a more likely culprit is the cable that runs from the antenna to the television. Richard Schneider, president of Antennas Direct, says, ”Eighty percent of the calls we get about reception problems turn out to be in the signal distribution between the antenna and the tuner.”

I’m pretty sure our cable was installed during a remodel back in 1980, before I lived in this house. I try to imagine what’s going on inside the walls. A splitter, perhaps in the attic, must send a line into the bedroom, so my bedroom TV is getting half of the original signal on a fairly short line. Then the cable continues down the wall, drops under the house, and splits into three to five other lines; when we moved into the house, there were television hookups in nearly every room on the first floor. That means the television in the family room is getting only 10 or 15 percent of the original signal.

Yet that was fine for analog VHF television. ”The lower VHF frequencies,” Schneider says, ”tend to be more forgiving of long cable runs and splitters. UHF signals are more prone to loss.” With 30 meters of coaxial cable, a 50-megahertz VHF signal loses about 2.8 decibels; a 500-MHz UHF signal loses about 8.5 dB. A couple of bites from a mouse along the way can increase that loss dramatically.

Then I noticed that I had one splitter sitting behind the television, dividing the signal between the VCR and the television. I yanked that off, since I don’t use the VCR these days, doubling the amount of signal going to the television. That gave me solid reception on NBC. If I can find another splitter, perhaps one closer to the antenna where there’s still a fair amount of signal coming through the cable, I can put a preamplifier on it for about $60. I’ve looked in the attic without success. And I can’t sort out the morass of wiring under the house without doing some crawling through dirt. I’m working up to that.

Given the struggles I had converting my own TVs to digital, I set out to convert two households in New Jersey—my mother’s and my aunt’s—with low expectations. I ordered two coupons to be sent to my aunt; she made countless trips to local retailers before finally catching Walmart with converters in stock—this time, Magnavox’s version. I hooked it up to my mother’s television, about 30 miles (approximately 50 kilometers) southwest of the network transmitters in New York City, and scanned for channels. (Digital tuners can lock into channels only when running the scanning function; that means when broadcasts are relocated on the spectrum, transmitters move, or a storm twists a rooftop antenna, users will need to rescan.) I was stunned—she got every channel she had received previously and then some.

That’s when my mother told me that her antenna had fallen a few years previously, and she’d bought the only antenna she could find on the market to replace it; the guy installing it insisted on replacing the cable as well. Turns out that antenna is a top-of-the-line HDTV (high-definition television) antenna that’s still sold today.

I had a feeling things weren’t going to go quite so smoothly at my aunt’s house nearby, where an ancient antenna is attached to the type of flat, twin-lead cable that predated coaxial for TV hookups. She gets a few snowy analog channels—NBC being the best—but tells me that her channel lineup changes whenever a storm redirects her antenna. I picked up two indoor antennas at Radio Shack: a basic model for $32 and a $50 top-of-the-line Radio Shack brand VHF/UHF/HDTV antenna with its own power supply and remote control; the thing looked like a UFO. I got basically no reception with the $32 antenna; with the $50 antenna, I got a few networks and a New Jersey PBS station transmitting from four miles away. At that point I decided to try hooking up a twin-lead cable from the flat rooftop antenna, although I’d been told the amount of signal coming down the old flat cables wasn’t going to get me much of anything. I scraped away some of the plastic to expose more copper, twisted the copper onto the screws of an adapter, and taped over the connection because it kept slipping loose. Attaching this fragile connection to the cable box brought in a few foreign-language stations, Fox, CBS, and the nearby PBS affiliate. My aunt decided that she could live without watching the rest of the Olympics on NBC, so we went with the rooftop connection, returning the complicated and expensive antenna to Radio Shack.

Back at Radio Shack, the salesperson, noticing my California address when she logged the return into the computer, asked me, ”Is the attitude in California towards digital TV any different than here?”

”What do you mean?”

”People are really annoyed,” she replied.

”They’re probably annoyed all over,” I said, thinking that, so far, most affected people are only annoyed because of the hassle of buying the boxes and likely won’t even attempt to hook them up until much closer to the February analog shutdown. And then many of them will have to struggle like I did. Neumann, the Channel 4 director back in California, says that most people living more than 10 miles away (16 km) from the transmitter are going to have to start over. Or they can spend about $60 a month for cable or satellite service—just the thing the digital television conversion is supposed to help us do without.

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