Image: Digital TV Q & A
msnbc.com
In addition to the federal government's Web site, DTV.gov, about the digital TV transition, the Federal Communications Commission has a toll-free number, 1-888-225-5322 (1-888-CALL FCC), that will remain available to consumers in the weeks and months ahead.
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msnbc.com
updated 6/10/2009 1:44:52 AM ET 2009-06-10T05:44:52

Spotty television service, problems with reception and other issues remain in the waning hours before Friday, the day the nation's broadcasters make a complete switch from analog to digital television.

On Monday alone, the Federal Communications Commission's toll-free hotline fielded 65,000 calls, a record for the agency, said a spokesman. The number, 1-888-225-5322 (1-888-CALL FCC), remains available to consumers in the weeks and months ahead.

Last month, the Nielsen Co. said about 3 percent of households were not ready for the transition, an improvement since February, when the transition was supposed to take place, and about 6 percent of homes were unprepared.

In order to receive digital TV, you'll need to have a digital television set. Since March, 2007, all TVs imported into the United States or shipped in interstate commerce have been required to have digital tuners. TVs with analog tuners can still be sold, but are supposed to be labeled prominently for buyers because of the digital switch.

If you don't have a digital TV, you'll need a converter box and an antenna, maybe two antennae, to receive both VHF and UHF channels. But even consumers who have these tools aren't guaranteed smooth sailing.

Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, testified recently before the FCC and said reception and signal strength issues "continue to loom large with consumers."

Consumers Union also continues to hear complaints "resulting from incomplete and sometimes misleading advertisements" by some cable companies, Kelsey said, that are presenting cable subscriptions "as the primary option to navigate the transition and failing to mention other low-cost options available to consumers."

Households are eligible for up to two converter box coupons, worth $40 each, toward the purchase of the boxes, which can cost between $50 and $80. The coupons will be available through July 31, but could run out sooner, depending on requests, said Rick Kaplan, FCC spokesman.

As of last week, 59.3 million coupons had been requested, with little more than half of them, 30.2 million redeemed, according to the agency.

We sent the FCC several questions about the transition, which were answered by Julius Knapp, chief of the agency's Office of Engineering and Technology:

I bought a converter box, set up an antenna, and scanned the channels and re-scanned. I still can't get a signal. What should I do?

If you are not seeing any channels at all, most likely your equipment is not set up properly. Call the FCC help line or check the FCC Web site at DTV.gov for tips on how to fix reception problems. If you are still having problems, the commission can arrange for (an in-home) visit to help with installation.

Do I need to have two antennae, rabbit ears and one of those circular ones, to get digital TV? Do I also have to have another antenna outside the house, on the roof?

Image: Antennae for digital TV transition
FCC
Households in most areas using a digital TV converter box will also need antennae capable of receiving both VHF (rabbit ears) and UHF (loop or bow tie) signals to receive all of the digital channels, says the FCC.

Yes, in most areas you need an antenna that is capable of receiving both VHF (rabbit ears) and UHF (loop or bow tie) signals to receive all of the digital channels.

In strong signal areas, you should be able to use an indoor antenna. In areas where the signals are moderate or weak, you are most likely to get the best service using an outdoor antenna.

Check the DTV "Reception Maps" tool at DTV.gov for guidance on the channels available in your location and the type of antenna you may need.

Will certain areas of the country will face more obstacles in making the transition because of geography and topography issues? And what will happen if some of those areas "go dark," with no TV reception?

The FCC has published detailed maps for every station comparing analog and digital reception and showing the predicted gains and losses of service. While the channels that are available at any location may change somewhat, we do not expect areas that now have analog reception to go completely dark.

I thought digital TV was going to mean more channels and not less. So far, I'm getting fewer channels with digital than I was with analog. Why is this happening?

First, check DTV.gov and use the "Reception Maps" tool to determine what channels you should be able to receive at your location and the kind of antenna you may need. Then adjust the location and orientation of your antenna and rescan your DTV converter box or DTV receiver to find the configuration that gets the best reception. Check DTV.gov for more tips on how to improve your reception.

Why does geography and topography play a role in getting a digital TV signal? I thought it was supposed to be "smarter" than analog, and better?

Geography and topography have always played a role in TV reception. The difference is that analog reception degrades gracefully and weak signals can still produce a snowy but viewable picture; digital reception is more of an all-or-nothing proposition, where weak signals can produce a perfect picture up to a point and then the signal goes over the “digital cliff,” where there is no picture at all.

I have cable TV, and thought I was set for the transition. But now a few of the channels I had are no longer in the lineup, and I'm getting a message on the screen that says I need additional equipment to see those channels. What additional equipment? And why? I thought I was "good to go"?

Cable systems are also transitioning to digital. Your analog TV will still work with digital cable systems by using a cable converter box. However, analog cable-ready TV receivers that are connected to cable may or may not work without a cable converter box.

Most cable systems are continuing to provide service to analog cable-ready TV receivers on their basic cable tier, but some channels formerly provided on the basic tier may be in the process of being shifted to the digital tier where you would need a cable converter box to receive them. Contact your cable system to determine whether you will need to make any changes in your equipment.

So far, my digital TV quality has been very mixed. Sometimes it goes along fine; other times, there's absolutely no signal. Why is this happening?

Most likely your system, particularly the antenna, needs to be adjusted to ensure you are getting the best available signal. If your DTV receiving system is not properly adjusted and you are operating close to the “digital cliff,” slight variations in the received signal can cause the picture to freeze or disappear. In some cases you may need a different antenna that is better able to receive the DTV signals available at your location.

Why do I continually have to adjust the antenna to get a good signal? I live in an urban area, close to one of the TV stations that I'm having problems getting reception with.

There can be several reasons you are having problems receiving this station. Many stations will not move to their final DTV channel and transmitter power until the digital TV transition on June 12. This could improve your reception of that channel.

Also, more than 130 stations will be undergoing a phased transition where their service will improve over the coming months. This was necessary to accommodate the relocation of antennas on towers.

The problem you are currently having could be due to “overload,” where an amplified antenna can produce a signal that is too strong for the DTV converter box or TV receiver. Try using an antenna without an amplifier. Finally, there are some areas where reception of TV signals, both analog and digital, is very challenging and service may always be sporadic or not available.

No matter what, it seems like this transition is going to cost every American, individually and through the tax money spent on the DTV program. Why should something that was working just fine as it was wind up costing each of us money and aggravation, having to practically be a TV engineer to figure this out and spend time adding equipment (antenna, converter boxes, maybe having to upgrade to cable or satellite)?

We appreciate that the transition to digital television is frustrating for some people and we are doing everything we can to provide support and resolve problems.

The transition to DTV will provide consumers with better pictures and sound and more channels (through the use of multicasting).

It will also allow broadcast TV stations to better compete with other video services such as cable and satellite that are either already digital or in the process of becoming so.

In many cases, the reception problems people may experience initially will improve in the coming months as stations implement their final facilities and improve their coverage and as viewers become more familiar with how to receive DTV signals. Nearly 90 percent of all TV stations are predicted to have more viewers in their digital coverage than their analog coverage once the transition is complete.

Most importantly, the transition to digital television is freeing up parts of the airwaves that are vitally needed for public safety services, as recommended by the 9-11 Commission, and (for) new wireless broadband services.

I've been using rabbit ears for a long time and been able to get at least 10 channels with pretty fair reception. Now, with the converter box, I either get no picture or one that freezes up. Why?

You may need a different antenna or to make other adjustments to your receiving system. Call the FCC help line, or check the FCC Web site for guidance on how to solve reception problems.

What are those of us who live in rural areas, far from transmission towers and the like, supposed to do? Have the box, and moving the antenna around doesn't help.

Check DTV.gov to determine the channels that should be available at your location and the kind of antenna you may need.

Many rural areas are served by TV translators, which are not yet required to switch to digital service. Some will continue to provide analog service while others are switching to digital. You may wish to check with the TV stations you have been receiving in analog to determine the availability of service via TV translator stations.

On the Internet, I've read complaints from people about converter boxes, with some saying they don't work that well. I realize they're a cheaper way to go than buying a new TV, but if money were not an issue, is it better to get a new set that is a digital TV than to fool around with one that isn't and try to make it work with a converter box?

Digital TV converter boxes available under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s Coupon Eligible Converter Box program are required to meet rigorous performance standards. Like any other product, performance can vary from one DTV converter box to the next, so you may wish to do some research before deciding which box to buy.

In most cases, the initial problems people have had with converter boxes are resolved once they better understand how to set them up and use them.

DTV converter boxes are designed to provide only a standard definition picture on an analog TV. If you want the benefits of a better-quality picture, you will need a digital TV receiver. DTV receivers are not required to meet any government performance standards, so here again, you should be sure to shop carefully for the DTV receiver that best meets your needs.

I live in an area prone to hurricanes, and for years have relied on a battery-operated TV (analog) for information during severe weather. Are you saying my little TV will not work at all without a converter box? What is the federal government doing to provide emergency information via TVs?

Portable analog TV receivers will not operate without a converter box. You will need to obtain a converter box that can operate on batteries, or use some other power source such as an uninterruptible power supply, car power adapter or portable generator to operate your converter box. See the FCC Web site for further details. Portable DTV receivers that rely on battery power are now available on the market.

Why does my VCR need a converter box to keep working with the TV when I already have a converter box for it?

You can connect your VCR in several ways. If you only want to record the program you are watching, you only need a single digital TV converter box. If you want to watch one program and record another, you will need two digital TV converter boxes.

The second converter box effectively replaces the tuner in your VCR. See DTV.gov for guidance on how to hook up a VCR to a digital TV converter box. The Consumer’s Union Guide "DTV Made Easy," which is available at DTV.gov, also has excellent diagrams showing how to hook up a VCR with a digital TV converter box.

I've got digital TV set up, but I am noticing interference problems in bad weather — even with just some wind or from airplanes overhead. Why is this? And what can be done about it? Are we just supposed to live with it this way, with reception sometimes working, sometimes not?

Your digital TV reception can also be affected by severe weather conditions such as storms and high winds. These reception issues can result from fluctuations in the broadcast signal that can be caused, for example, by moving leaves and branches on trees.

You can minimize the effects of high winds or storms by re-orienting your antenna to obtain the strongest available signal. If this does not work, a better indoor antenna or an outdoor antenna may help.

In addition, make sure that outdoor antenna mounts are secure to minimize any movement caused by the wind. If you lose reception of a particular channel during severe weather conditions, try tuning to other channels that remain receivable for weather advisory information or alerts.

In cases where no TV stations can be received, you should tune to a local AM or FM station or any other available media for weather alerts.

Will there be any analog reception anywhere in the country after June 12?

Only full-service TV stations are required to convert to digital by June 12. (Some stations will provide a basic “nightlight” service on their analog channel for a short time after their conversion to digital.) Low-power TV stations and TV translators may continue to provide analog service. Some have already transitioned to digital, and others have plans to do so in the future.

There lots of American who live in rural areas. We went and got the converter boxes, or we went and bought digital TVs, but my understanding is we won't get any over-the-air service because we're so far from a major TV market. Why?

Even rural areas will receive digital TV service in most cases. There are some situations where people live in areas that are so remote that they were technically outside the service area of the analog station, but were still able to get some reception, even though the picture may have been poor.

Unless a TV translator is available, they may lose service. However, in truly remote locations only a few analog stations would have been available, and for this reason many of these people are already subscribers to satellite TV service.

Getting the local weather information from TV is important, especially in the boonies where I live. I signed up for satellite to get the local channels, but in bad weather the satellite goes out — and so do the local channels. What can be done about this?

In truly remote areas it is particularly important for digital TV reception that you use a high-performance antenna system that is mounted as high as possible in an area that is as free as possible of trees and other objects in the direction of the TV transmitters.

This will lessen the likelihood that you will lose signals in storms. For satellite reception, you should contact your service provider for guidance on how to obtain the most reliable reception.

Depending on your location and climate, in some situations occasional loss of signal in severe storms cannot be helped. You should keep an AM/FM radio on hand for such situations.

After paying $125 for a new antenna and spending many hours experimenting, I'm getting reasonably good DTV reception. I read that some stations may "reuse" towers and other equipment currently devoted to analog for digital TV. If so, I suppose that DTV reception might eventually improve?

Yes, many stations are going to be improving their service over the coming months, which in many cases will resolve reception problems. In anything as technically complex as the digital TV transition, there are bound to be some initial problems and there will be a period of adjustment.

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