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First digital TV market to go live next week

Wilmington, N.C., will be the first market to switch to digital TV next week, providing a peek at what to expect in February when the rest of the country transitions to digital TV.

Wilmington, N.C., next Monday will be the first city in the U.S. to make the switch to digital TV as Federal Communication Commission officials and local broadcasters conduct the first widespread test of the conversion to digital TV.

At noon, TV broadcasters throughout the Wilmington area will shut off their old analog TV signals and broadcast only in digital, providing the first real test of the mandated switch to digital TV. Congress has mandated that all TV broadcasters switch to digital broadcast in February. In an effort to help test the switch for the rest of the country, Wilmington is making the switch five months early.

Once the switch happens, old TV sets that rely on over-the-air analog TV signals will no longer work. These are TV sets that use antennas to receive free TV signals. The FCC has already begun issuing $40 coupons to help defray the cost of converter boxes that can be used so that old TVs receive digital signals. For the most part, people who already subscribe to cable or satellite won't need converter boxes no matter how old their TVs are.

The transition is expected to affect more than 15 percent of U.S. households, which rely on free TV broadcasts. Wilmington is actually in better shape than most communities with only 7 percent of its households, or roughly 12,600 homes, being affected by the switch, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The biggest concern among Wilmington residents is that their portable battery-powered TVs, which are often used during hurricanes, won't work. Battery-powered converter boxes are now available for these TVs, which should ease some of these concerns.

Wilmington's early conversion to digital TV is supposed to help FCC officials assess whether or not educational efforts about the switch have been affective or if more is needed to get the public ready before the nationwide switch in February. Officials in Wilmington are confident that the public is prepared for the switch to digital TV.

Information about the conversion to digital TV has widely circulated throughout the community for months. And nationwide polls are also showing that the message is getting through to a majority of Americans, who according to the Wall Street Journal say they are aware that the country is switching to digital TV next year, even if they don't know exactly what that means.

The real challenge for FCC officials is educating people about whether they need the converter boxes and how to use them. Local broadcasters in Wilmington have run advertisements and news segments showing people how to hook up converter boxes.

Next Monday's test should provide some insight into whether these messages have been affective. But experts warn that the test in Wilmington may not be indicative of what to expect in the rest of the country come February, since Wilmington has been given far more attention for the upcoming switch.