The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said Friday that he is unlikely to delay plans for an important test in North Carolina that could disrupt television service for some viewers in the path of Tropical Storm Hanna.
Wilmington, N.C., is serving as a test market for the national conversion to digital broadcasting. The city's four commercial network affiliates will stop broadcasting an analog signal at noon Monday, leaving viewers unready for the change unable to watch those channels.
Hanna, with 65 mph winds and torrential downpours, was expected to come ashore between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, S.C., late Friday or early Saturday. A more dangerous storm, Ike, was churning through the Bahamas.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told reporters late Friday afternoon that it appears the rough weather will be clear of the city by the time of the test, and it looks like it will go ahead as scheduled.
"At this point, I think it's still going to end up taking place," Martin said on a conference call at around 4 p.m. Friday. "We're obviously watching the tropical storm very closely."
Some emergency planners worried
The stormy weather worries some emergency planners who may need to broadcast emergency messages to the public about the storm or flood risks.
However,the FCC says stations may still elect to provide emergency information and announcements on their old analog channel for vulnerable viewers.
Martin said that if a decision is made to postpone the TV test, it will be announced before 2 p.m. Sunday.
Broadcasters in Wilmington volunteered to transmit only digital signals months before the congressionally mandated national changeover. FCC member Michael Copps suggested the early test to identify potential problems.
All full-power television stations are required to stop broadcasting analog programming on Feb. 17, 2009. Viewers who receive programming through an antenna and do not own newer-model digital TV sets must buy a converter box. The government is providing two $40 coupons per household that can be used to buy these boxes.
'We're pretty well prepared'
Even with the necessary TV converter equipment, viewers using battery-operated televisions in areas that lose electricity during the storms won't be able to watch TV broadcasts because the converters themselves require power.
There were early concerns among local officials about the switch taking place during hurricane season, said Mark Boyer, a spokesman for New Hanover County, which includes Wilmington. But he predicted few problems because the FCC has held public meetings since July to warn residents about the change.
"I don't think we have that much concern now given the amount of outreach done," Boyer said. "We feel we're pretty well prepared."
The FCC named Wilmington for the test in May. The agency said it selected the area because all commercial stations there — WWAY (ABC), WSFX-TV (FOX), WECT (NBC) and WILM-LP (CBS) — are digital-ready. Trinity Broadcasting's station, W51CW, also will begin transmitting digital signals only. The area's PBS station, WUNJ, will continue to broadcast both analog and digital signals.
North Carolina is FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's home state.