A View from the Digital Divide DTV Front

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Tom Allibone is a telecommunications auditing expert, an "FCC Deputy" for the DTV Transition, and lives in a rural area in New Jersey.

The First Purchase: The Converter Box: The first thing I discovered is that the converter box 'coupon' doesn't pay the entire cost of the converter box. When the coupons arrived in the mail, it provided a list of approved boxes and retail stores. I chose Best Buy, went to the store and discovered that store personnel had very limited knowledge about how the product might work and could not answer any questions except to say that "when it works, it works as specified". Also, Best Buy does not offer any choices and only sells the Insignia NS-DXA1 digital converter. The store person did not tell me that it was strictly a digital converter versus a model that might also have a built in analog tuner. For the moment, I decided to only buy one box and preserve my options, knowing that I only have 90 days to buy the next converter or else I lose my coupon. I emerged from Best Buy having to pay an additional $24.14 for the privilege of receiving free TV. Of course, I was charged state sales tax on the regular price, but that's another matter for another day.

Installation: The instructions for hooking it up were straight forward. The average consumer should have no problems with connecting the cable to the box. Once connected, the on-screen menu was easy to navigate and I even felt some excitement watching the screen as it was auto searching all the channels starting at Channel 2 and ending at Channel 69. And then, it said "0 channels found. Check your signal".

On the current analog system, I receive 11 channels from the Philadelphia and New York area. Some stations are very clear but others have some fuzzy or snowy effect, but at least they are watchable.

Upon rechecking the connection, I found theissue and performed the auto-channel search again. This time the display found 7 channels. As I moved the antenna, at one point the auto channel search found as many as 14 channels. And it was bizarre. I got a Korean channel, some local station from a small NJ town and other mixed-bag watching - all of which I didn't know exist - and would never watch.

This is where things got very interesting. The digital converter box has a "signal strength" button that shows a color coded bar. When it is displayed on the screen, you can watch your signal bounce up and down like the wind was blowing thru your TV. It was probably one of the most useful features with the digital converter as I continued to reposition the TV and see what happened.

Basically, my digital signal strength mostly fell into the 15% to 50& range. If I repositioned the antenna, I could receive one Philadelphia station and others would pixilate, freeze the screen, provide intermittent sound and in some cases revert to a black screen saying "no signal".

It appeared that when a station worked well, meaning consistent picture and sound with no pixelating or sound degradation, the signal showed 75% or higher. At the 60% to 75% signal strength, the picture would experience degradation issues previously described.

Like many rural country consumers with TV antennas in the attic, we chose to give up some of the signal power for a number of reasons. It has worked well in the analog world but the new digital signal does not appear to be as resilient. Based upon my experience, it appears that a minimum signal strength of 75% is needed, otherwise, reception begins to degrade.

At this point in the process of converting to over the air digital, it was clear that simply buying a digital converter was not the answer. I couldn't get the basic channels I watch without pixelating, etc.. Using my current system configuration with the converter does not work as well as my analog system. So, where do you go from here?

The Booster Box and Antenna Issue: The next logical point seemed to be the antenna. Is my existing antenna capable of capturing the digital signal, does it need a booster, should it be moved to the roof or do I need to buy a new antenna? I quickly discovered that "antenna installers" are nowhere to be found. I searched the yellow pages and found nothing.

I decided to visit the nearest electronics store in the area, Radio Shack. I explained my dilemma and the very convincing store manager said the solution was very simple --- I needed an "inline amp" and that would solve my problem. I was skeptical but agreed to try his $39 solution with the understanding that I could bring it back if it did not work. I hooked it up and quickly discovered that nothing had changed or improved, so I went back to Radio Shack and exchanged it. This time, I thought that I might buy a new antenna, so the salesman began to show me indoor antennas and a dish-type outdoor antenna. Since he was unable to provide ant technical information or make me feel comfortable, I decided that Radio Shack was not going to be helpful.

Next, I tried the internet. I found several websites for buying antennas. Some of the sites had lots of information about various technical issues such as antennas with a pre amp, inline amplifiers, splitters etc.. After the Radio Shack experience, it became very clear that professional guidance was needed.

At Solid Signal http://www.solidsignal.com I was able to fill out their online form to help qualify my environment. They came back with a recommendation to buy a new TV roof antenna.

It looks like the cost of buying a new antenna will run about $300 if I install it myself. Even though I have a technical background, I need to explore the costs of having a trained professional do the installation. Solid Signal has an arrangement with a nationwide installation group. The costs of having a trained professional install the antenna on the chimney will run between $250 to $350.

Since the FCC digital transition program only covers $40 toward the purchase of a converter box, I will have to pay out over $650 to continue to receive over the air digital TV.

The Government claims that this should go smoothly… and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for us to drink the cool-aid - only to find out that it's now undrinkable purple stuff for millions of customers.

Tom Allibone, tom@teletruth.org