The travails of receiving digital TV broadcasts

Installing a digital converter box is no guarantee you'll get the signal.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
3 min read

Until recently, my interest in the upcoming demise of most analog over-the-air (OTA) TV signals was purely academic. I get cable where I live and have zippo TV reception otherwise. Thus, I'm unaffected by the switch to digital-only broadcasts--as is anyone who gets their signals from a cable company or from a satellite.

However, I knew that I'd be visiting my dad who lives on the Maine Midcoast and he does get his TV (all four channels of it) over the airwaves from Bangor (the nearest city of any size) using an old analog TV set. So I figured that it made sense to get a converter box coupon, purchase the box (which converts digital transmissions to analog), and generally get things set up and figure out if there were any issues.

There were.

Getting the converter box was easy enough. It actually seems a sensibly administered program. The $40 coupon (for a device costing about $60) arrived promptly and the amount of the coupon strikes me as giving a nice discount without encouraging people to just pick up electronics that they don't have a use for. I purchased the converter at a local big-box retailer and took it up to Maine with me. For someone with a modicum of experience with hooking up electronics (which would be me, if not my dad), getting everything connected was pretty straightforward.

Only one problem.

No signal. Not even on the two stations whose analog signals had seemed fairly strong. Double-check all the connections and so forth. Yep. Everything seemed to be working except for the no digital signal thing.

To skip to the bottom line, my dad called a local TV and antenna installer who had done some work on the house's rooftop antenna in the past to see if he had any guidance to offer. Perhaps a new antenna or re-orienting the current one would solve the problem.

Apparently not. He said that the Bangor stations were broadcasting digital signals but at relatively low power and that a large area of the coast that picked up analog at least partially couldn't tune in digital at all. Maybe they'll boost the power before the February 2009 cut-off--or maybe they won't--he said. In any case, as things stand, OTA won't be an option come February.

I can't say that I was completely shocked. I'd read stories suggesting people receiving weak OTA signals might not be able to receive them come the switch to all-digital. Indeed, that was one of the reasons I wanted to try out a converter box in case a plan B or plan C was needed.

Put this down as another data point. I suspect that readers of this blog tend to get their TV via cable/satellite, live in urban areas where signals tend to be stronger, or make a big deal out of how they don't watch TV. But there are still a fair number of people who receive only analog OTA signals (about 17 million households) and some percentage of those are going to get a surprise when this switch finally happens for real.

As for my dad, he's fine. In fact, he's probably enjoying his 200+ channels of satellite by the time you're reading this. But that's not an option for everyone.