With the nation's Feb. 17 shutdown of analog TV signals in doubt, federal regulators will be closely watching what happens Thursday in Hawaii, when the state makes the move early because of an endangered bird.
As Hawaii scrambles to become the first state to turn off analog broadcasts and go all digital, hundreds of people have been calling support lines for help and zipping digital converter boxes off store shelves.
Teams of volunteers and contractors are making house calls to residents who were struggling to hook up the black converter box, which rests atop a TV like a small VCR. The boxes sell for $50 to $70.
"If I had to do this myself, I would probably get so frustrated and break something," said Arlene Sato, a florist who sought installation assistance in her home in the Waikiki area. "I can do the creative stuff, but don't ask me to do anything mechanical."
After installer Earl Mostoles, who is paid about $20 per box by the federal government, spent five minutes setting up a converter and 10 minutes scanning for channels, Sato was picking up digital broadcasts on two out of the four major networks and several more obscure channels.
By Thursday at noon, all stations should be transmitting their digital signals at full power, and analog TV towers will be airing infomercials about the transition instead of regular programming.
Government officials and broadcasters estimate about 20,000 households in Hawaii still get their TV signals over the air, meaning they'd have to buy new TVs with digital tuners or digital converter boxes for their old TVs. Or they could switch to cable or satellite service.
"We're desperately asking people to set up their converter boxes early so they don't all call us Thursday," said Mike Rosenberg, president and general manager of KITV, Honolulu's ABC affiliate. "Hopefully, we will not be inundated with calls, but we're prepared."
The analog TV shutdown, mandated by Congress to free up space in the airwaves for other services, has gotten early runs in Wilmington N.C., and small towns in Northern California, with some reports of people having problems receiving the digital signals. Hawaii's change is happening now so analog transmission towers can be taken down before the nesting season of the dark-rumped petrel, a volcano-dwelling endangered bird.
The rest of the nation is scheduled to go digital Feb. 17, but the federal government has run out of money for $40 coupons to subsidize converter boxes. President-elect Barack Obama's transition team has asked Congress to delay the shut-off, though the Federal Communications Commission chairman has said postponing could confuse consumers.
Lawmakers are divided on whether to push back the transition date, although there is bipartisan agreement that something needs to be done to ensure that everyone is ready in time. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is working on a bill to approve more funding for coupons and postpone the transition from anywhere from 90 days to as late as June.
As many as 8 million U.S. households rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air channels.
"We're just going to hold our breaths and see what happens Thursday," said Lyle Ishida, the FCC's Hawaii digital TV project manager.
About half of the 800 phone calls last week to a statewide customer support call center operated by the FCC and broadcasters sought technical help. Many of the rest were from people asking what they needed to do to prepare or whether they would lose service.
More than 53,000 Hawaii residents have requested converter box coupons, 16,000 of which had been redeemed as of Sunday, Ishida said. Because Hawaii TV viewers knew the digital conversion would occur in January, they requested their coupons sooner — before government money for the program ran out, Ishida said. Those who only applied for coupons this month are out of luck.
Even those who have converter boxes might see some channels go dark. While digital delivers a crisper picture than analog, with its shadows, fuzz and static, digital signals usually either come in fine or don't come in at all. That means people with poor analog reception likely will need to add more powerful indoor or outdoor antennas to get the digital broadcasts.
People living in the islands' many green valleys and rural areas figure to be among the most affected. They can turn to help from installers like Mostoles, but most of Hawaii's "microcontractors" for digital box installations come from six community groups, including soccer clubs and a Baptist organization, and each group is limited to earning $3,000.
Bruce Bottorff, spokesman for AARP's Hawaii chapter, was worried especially about elderly residents who are more likely to be using analog TVs and less likely to be familiar with new technology.
"There is a broad concern too," Bottorff said, "that some older consumers might be vulnerable to sales pitches for new and expensive TV sets rather than for cheaper converter boxes."
At a Honolulu Best Buy store, customers have been snatching up the converter boxes. One brand that sold for $50 was sold out Tuesday, but about five dozen $60 boxes remained on the shelf.
"I can see how my parents and grandparents would be frustrated with it," said Ryan Himeda, a supervisor at the store, which also offers $100 home installation. "We try to steer customers on the right path."
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