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Martin: 5 Percent Could Lose Signal in Transition

At a hearing on DTV before the House Telecommunications Subcommittee Feb. 13, Chairman Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) asked how many viewers who get new converter boxes for their old TVs will draw a blank on DTV.

“Because the signal characteristics of digital transmission and the anticipated geographic coverage area for individual broadcasters are different than for analog television, many consumers may not receive the digital version of channels they currently receive after the switch,” he said. “It is important to know how many such households will be affected by this and the extent to which households may need to adjust, or acquire, antennas to receive digital signals.”

How many viewers will lose their picture next year? Five percent, said FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin. He told the panel that people unable to pick up digital signals were out of the expected coverage area of the analog channels and, in effect, shouldn’t have been getting reception in the first place.

That number is not known for certain. “General rule: If you get analog today, you will get digital tomorrow using the same type of antenna,” said David Donovan, president and CEO of the Association for Maximum Service Television. (Read about the Centris study on the issue and MSTV’s response here.) Read Doug Lung’s take on the Centris study in RF Reporthere.

But he warned that in some cases, the contours given to full-service stations are smaller than the contours they had in analog. Some people living about 40 to 50 miles away from transmitters may have to get an antenna with a stronger gain, he said.

The Consumer Electronics Association also didn’t suggest a specific number of viewers who would have trouble getting the signals, but acknowledged that some might.

“We believe broadcasters will certainly maximize their coverage as they take down their analog facilities and make adjustment during the transition,” said a CEA spokeswoman. “Receiving equipment is getting better all the time, especially with respect to multipath interference. It is inevitable that there will be differences in reception capability as we replace the broadcast TV system that has been in place for decades; however, some of the current projections seem overly pessimistic.”

In all, the CEA estimates that 11 percent of the nation, or 13 million households, rely on over-the-air TV exclusively. NAB puts that figure at 17 percent of the nation, or 19.6 million households.

At least one committee member complained that the panel had figured for years that the only consumer hardware needed for the transition was the subsidized box. Now, they are being told, viewers might need to install new, better antennas to get channels they’ve received for decades. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) wondered if another consumer subsidy program was in order.