There is a lot of things going on behind the scenes of this digital television transition that may make this the biggest mess since the 2000 presidential election.
What most people don't realize is that Low Power TV stations and TV translators (a type of signal repeater that is used to extend a stations broadcast range) will be allowed to continue to broadcast on their analog signal for years to come.
Congress has allocated funds to the National Telecommunications and Information Adminstration (NTIA) to help these TV stations buy digital converters so they can pick up distant digital full-power signals and re-broadcast them into rural and mountainous areas that have trouble receiving television. So technically, if you live in a place that has a hard time picking up distant signals, you should be able to receive the television you have been seeing before , without any difficulty.
Of course, this is a US Government-controlled process, so its safe to assume that nothing is ever this easy.
In a recent subcommittee meeting, Variety points out that FCC chairman Kevin Martin told congress that everything is on track for a smooth transition to digital television.
But what most people don't know (and the FCC seems reluctant to point out) is that digital television signals don't travel over the air as far as the lower frequency analog signals do. This means that repeaters might have a hard time picking up the signals on their own.
When pressed as to how many homes may be affected by this, Martin claims that perhaps 5% of all over-the-air-dependent homes might "slip through the cracks."
It seems that the FCC head might be basing his estimates on flawed information:
In a study released earlier this week, research firm Centris claimed the number of households that will exceed the geographic reach of DTV signals could be significant because the FCC’s models for estimated coverage are off by more than a factor of two.
So it could be a lot more than 5% of homes that suddenly have no television signal at all. Of course, Subcommittee chairman Edward Markey urged the FCC to do everything in its power to limit the amount of homes whose TVs will go dark.
“Congress is a stimulus-response institution,” Markey added. “There’s nothing more stimulating than a million people calling to say they can’t get a channel that they’ve gotten since 1949.”
And here is where it gets really interesting:
Congress has helped the NTIA financially so that they could issue $40 discount coupons for DTV converter boxes. This allows the public to watch digital signals on their older analog televisions. To date, the NTIA has approved 28 different converter boxes as part of the coupon program.
There was a huge surge of consumers applying for converter boxes in the first few weeks of January when the coupon program first went into effect. But as most geeks know, there is a reason why its known as the "bleeding edge" of technology.
Satellite broadcaster Echostar has teamed up with Sling media to develop the TR40. A converter box that will sell for $39.95, essentially allowing consumers to acquire the converter for free. This is great, however the converter box wont be available till at least June.
This means that if you were one of those consumers who patted yourself on the back for being so quick to jump on the DTV bandwagon, you may find yourself unable to get the freebie converter, because the coupon expires after 90 days from the date it was ordered.
But wait! It gets even crazier:
Most of the devices that have been approved not only convert analog TV signals to digital, but actually block analog signals completely. This means that while the NTIA is spending money to make sure that low power TV stations and translators continue to broadcast in analog, they are at the same time approving converter boxes that block these very signals.
The clock is ticking and the insanity seems to be spreading. Are we really going to be ready for this new technology or are we facing a new dark age?
We'll find out in T minus 365 days and counting.
For more information about the transition, visit DTVTransition.org