Digital TV test offers some real-world lessons

Wilmington, N.C., became the first market to make the switch to digital TV broadcast, but the transition wasn't all smooth sailing, which officials say helps prepare them for the nationwide switch in six months.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

The first major test of the switch to digital TV left many viewers in Wilmington, N.C., looking at blank screens and calling local TV stations, according to several news reports.

digital tv switch

On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission conducted the first major real-world test of the switch to digital television. Wilmington, N.C., volunteered to be the guinea pig for the switch, agreeing to turn off its analog broadcast signals about six months before the rest of the country will do it.

At noon EDT Monday, broadcasters flipped the switch to all digital transmission. And almost immediately, TV broadcasters and the FCC hotline were inundated with phone calls from local residents in the area who weren't prepared for the transition or couldn't figure out how to use the converter boxes that should have allowed their older TVs to get the digital signal, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The test in Wilmington is key to minimizing mass chaos when the entire country makes the transition to all digital broadcasts on Feb. 17, 2009, a move mandated by Congress so that wireless spectrum could be used more efficiently. The agency has already auctioned off large chunks of the spectrum to be used for wireless broadband services.

For the majority of TV viewers across the country who own new digital-ready TVs or subscribe to cable or satellite TV, the switch is a non-issue. But for the millions of households that get free TV and own older TVs, they will need a digital converter box to be able to view TV on their older TVs.

The government and broadcast industry have spent millions of dollars over the past several months to educate the public about the transition. And the FCC has been offering vouchers to subsidize the cost of the digital converter boxes. But many in Congress worry that all the public service announcements and vouchers haven't been effective. And when the transition comes, people won't be prepared.

The test in Wilmington, where officials had made a concerted effort to get the word out about the switch, is a good indication that more education is needed. According to the Journal, by mid-afternoon roughly 74 calls had been placed to two TV stations, WSFX-TV, a Fox affiliate, and WECT-TV, an NBC affiliate. The newspaper also reported the FCC received about a hundred calls on its toll-free help line in the first few hours after local broadcasters shut off their analog signals. Most of the calls were from people who needed help programming the new digital converter boxes, the newspaper said.

Even though the switch to digital in Wilmington, N.C., wasn't as smooth as some might have hoped, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said it served its purpose, which was to provide valuable lessons for what needs to be done to make sure the nationwide transition goes smoothly.

"The measure of success here in Wilmington is not what happens today or tomorrow here, but it's what we learn from it," he told the Journal in an interview. "If no one called today, that wouldn't necessarily mean it's a success."