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Digital switch has arrived, relatively smoothly

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 12, 2009 - With the digital TV switch in full force, some local affiliates' switchboards got lit up today, but for others it seemed like business as usual.

Phone banks at KSDK 5, KTVI 2 and KMOV 4 continue to receive calls from people who need help with the switch, which occurred at midnight last night. But KNLC 24 and KDNL 30 don't have phones ringing off the hook.

"I've only gotten two (calls) today," said Vic Anderson, program director at KNLC. "One guy wanted to know how come he couldn't get a station on a converter box."

Callers' problems are no different than they were months ago. Converter box connections, scans and antenna setup still confuse TV watchers. But some callers aren't equipped at all.

"A lot of people just aren't equipped; they don't have an antenna," said Sean Walkup, a technician at KMOV 4 who took calls from 2-5 p.m. Friday.

Walkup said KMOV has had several hundred calls since the phone bank opened at midnight. He added that callers in urban areas, especially those without rooftop antennae, and the elderly are having the most trouble.

"You really do need a rooftop antenna to get the best signal with these things," he said. "This technology stuff is confusing. And you feel for (older callers) because all this information is high tech. It's sort of passing by these people who are 60-years-old plus."

Jim Wellinghoff, a KSDK technician, retired in December but came back to help with phone bank today. "It's been pretty steady all day long because of the number of calls we've had," he said, estimating about 300-400 calls.

Wellinghoff said he's dealt with a lot of questions about the converter boxes -- signals aren't coming to the converter box; people don't understand how to operate it. "They can't figure it out," he said.

Most of the calls come from older people. "We don't have young people calling," said Wellinghoff. "I get the impression that the people who call and are older don't have grandkids. I just feel bad for the older people who call."

KTVI partnered with G2 Communications and the FCC to answer callers' questions and provide free installations. Mary Hill, community service director at KTVI, said their phone bank has taken about 1,000 calls since 10:45 p.m. Thursday night.

Meanwhile, nobody has called Jim Wright, regional engineering manager for St. Clair Broadcast Group at KDNL, about the switch. KDNL went digital on the original date for the transition, February 17.

"It was effortless," Wright said. "The first day we probably got 30 calls. The next day, maybe 10."

He attributed the quiet to St. Louis preparedness and the lack of a news operation at KDNL.

"I know (other stations) got more calls than we did," he said. "Here, it's really been a piece of cake."

Why the switch?

"Clearer picture, better sound and multiple channels for free -- those are the big selling points," said Angela Smith, a communications assistant at KETC-Channel 9. The switch "will have its growing pains," she said.

To pick up digital broadcasts, consumers have three options:

  1. Attach an antenna to a TV that has a digital tuner in it.
  2. Buy a digital converter box and antenna to hook up to a TV.
  3. Subscribe to a cable or satellite service.

But the switch to digital broadcasts doesn't guarantee better reception.
"In analog -- because of the nature of the signal -- people were used to seeing fuzzy pictures," said Rebekah Bina, FCC DTV outreach coordinator for St. Louis. "The digital signal is transmitted in blocks. (Digital signals) will cut off entirely instead of going snowy or fuzzy."

Since the beginning of TV, stations transmitted with analog signals on a wavelength. Digital signals are more like Internet connections, sending data. Satellite also sends data, so problems similar to those experienced by satellite users are likely to arise with DTV.

"Digital is a line of sight," Smith said. "The wind being too strong or the sun being too hot ... affects the shape of the signal so that it doesn't get where it needs to go or it deteriorates too much once it gets to the antennae."

Smith said consumers should consider buying an amplified antenna to use with their converter box or digitally tuned TV. She's received calls from people who lost channels by using the converter box with old rabbit ears. Placement of the antenna is crucial, too. Binka and Smith recommended getting the antenna as high as possible -- perhaps on the roof -- and aiming it toward a respective station's tower.

"If you're close to (more than two) towers, you might struggle over where to place your antennae," Binka said.

The government had more in mind than using fancy antennae to get crisper TV pictures. First responders -- such as police officers and firefighters -- will have more frequencies on which to communicate since DTV signals take up less room on radio frequencies. Rick Kaplan, an FCC spokesman, said the government talked about digital TV as early as the 1980s. DTV enables channels to transmit multiple broadcasts. Instead of having one KETC-Channel 9, there are now channels 9.1, 9.2, 9.3 and 9.4.

The government also anticipates innovation.

"Businesses bid on room to develop new products, such as wireless broadband," Kaplan said.

Despite the motives -- and eventual outcomes -- the government has tried to ease consumers through the change by supplying $40 coupons toward converter boxes and free installation of boxes and antennae. 

Apollo Industries won a bid from the FCC to conduct free installations in certain areas, including St. Louis.

"We will be offering installation services to come out to residents and install the (converter) box, TV and antennae," said Henry Burnett, Apollo Industries president. "We will run a (channel) scan to make sure the installation went properly. It's a great price: F-R-E-E."

To get assistance from Apollo Industries, call 1-240-432-8336.

With or without the free service, St. Louis residents have gotten more prepared than the rest of the country, according to Nielsen Media Research. About 2.7 percent of U.S. households aren't ready for DTV; that figure stands at 2.03 percent in St. Louis as of May 24. In the St. Louis' media market, 14.5 percent of households rely on over-the-air broadcasts.

Even though hundreds of thousands of households have already set up DTV equipment, picking up the data transmission isn't a sure thing. Some cities in Jefferson County, such as Hillsboro and Cedar Hill, don't have access to cable or satellite services and are in a DTV dead zone, Smith said.

"The majority of my calls are reception issues," she said. "It's all relative to where you live ... and what kind of antenna setup you have."

Christian Losciale is an intern with the St. Louis Beacon.