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Some stations still plan early digital-TV transition

More than a quarter of TV stations in the U.S. could shut off their analog TV transmitters before the new June 12 deadline.

Over a quarter of all full-power broadcast TV stations could cut off their analog TV service on or before February 17 even though the official deadline has been extended another four months, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Already 143 full-power TV stations have terminated broadcasting their analog signal. And another 60 stations have already informed the FCC that they would like to terminate broadcasting in analog before February 17. As of February 2, when acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps sent a letter to Congress urging them to delay the transition, another 276 broadcasters had told the FCC they intended to shut off their analog transmitters on February 17.

If all these TV stations go through with their plans, roughly 27 percent of the 1,796 full-power TV broadcasters in the U.S. will be broadcasting only in digital.

What does this mean for over-the-air TV viewers? Well, the FCC hopes that it won't disrupt TV viewing much. But for consumers who don't have a digital tuner built into their TV or haven't hooked up a digital converter box to their old TV, it could mean that they'll have fewer TV channels to watch.

Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that moves the deadline for transitioning TV broadcast from analog to digital from February 17 to June 12. The Senate has also passed a bill pushing the date of the transition back to June 12. President Obama is expected to sign it into law shortly. As part of a compromise to get the bills through Congress, lawmakers added a provision that allows broadcasters to transition to all-digital broadcasts early .

The FCC met Thursday to discuss the process for allowing TV broadcasters to move to all-digital broadcasting early. Broadcasters must inform the FCC by 12 a.m. EST on February 10 if they intend to cut off their analog TV signal. And at that time, the FCC will have a better understanding of how many TV stations will actually go to all-digital broadcasts on or before February 17.

The agency has said it will likely allow most of these broadcasters that would like to transition to all digital early to do so, but Copps said that the agency reserves the right to deny broadcasters from switching early if it doesn't serve the public interest. Specifically, the FCC will try to make sure that in areas where a large number of people are not ready that there are some TV stations still transmitting analog signals until the June 12 deadline. The agency will also make sure that TV stations that are transitioning early are not interfering with other TV broadcasters, using their old analog channels.

TV stations that wish to switch to all-digital transmission on February 17 will have to provide ample notification to the public between now and then, an FCC spokesman said.

Copps has encouraged as many TV stations as possible to continue transmitting analog signals until the new deadline of June 12. The nation's largest broadcasters--ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC/Telemundo--have all agreed that their owned and operated stations would continue to broadcast in analog until the new DTV transition.

Stations have been preparing to cut off their analog broadcasts for the February 17 deadline for months. Several TV stations throughout the country have tested switching off their analog transmission to make sure they are prepared as well as to make sure viewers are prepared.

TV broadcasters are making the switch to digital to free up valuable wireless spectrum. About 61 percent of all full-power broadcast TV stations are transmitting both analog and digital signals. Leaving the analog signals on until the new deadline of June 12 will cost them more money as they are required to pay for the additional electricity and facility costs of running multiple transmitters.

Congress passed the new legislation to delay the deadline because legislators and consumer advocates are concerned that 20 million people--most of whom are poor, elderly, and living in rural parts of the country--are not prepared for the transition; the government ran out of the $40 coupons it was issuing to help defray the cost of the converter boxes necessary to allow older TVs to get digital signals. There have also been reports that many consumers, who have already gotten converter boxes, are not able to connect them properly to their TVs.