The Washington Post’s Kim Hart ‘Technical Difficulties’ on the painful Digital TV transition: Obama and the FCC can do something about it

As Kim Hart, Staff Writer for the Washington Post noted in her article today, Technical Difficulties: Switch to Digital TV May Not Be as Smooth as Advertised, many consumers are impacted by the transition to digital television (as I noted noted previously).  Customers find that simply using a converter box isn’t always enough to get reliable TV signals.

“In less than a month, on Feb. 17, all full-power stations plan to shut off analog signals and air digital-only broadcasts. Viewers with older analog TV sets will need to hook up a converter box to receive over-the-air programs. Digital TV sets will automatically receive the new signals. Cable and satellite subscribers should not be affected by the switch.

“But many consumers are discovering that upgrading to a digital set or adding a converter box may not be enough to get a reliable digital signal. Some will also have to buy more powerful antennas to install in living rooms or on roofs, adding expense and frustration for the nearly 14 million households who rely on over-the-air signals.

“People are very surprised when they realize they can’t get [the channels],” said Barry Goodstadt, an independent analyst who has been studying digital reception issues. He predicts that 70 percent of households with indoor “rabbit ear” antennas will have to upgrade to more powerful equipment.”

As noted in my post on the digital TV delay, the transition to digital television has been poorly managed, and in some cases, poorly understood even by those in the industry. 

Here’s an example: I wrote an email to Comcast customer service, registering my complaint of having to add another set top box to my “already-ready-for-digital-TV” TVs: I have televisions that include a digital tuner, and capable of receiving the free to air digital channels, which Comcast rebroadcasts on their channel map. As Comcast’s advertising here in Washington state exclaimed that “current customers don’t have to do anything” come the digital change currently slated for 2-17-09, I expected that the same channels I get today without the need to decode (or decrypt) channels from 2 to 99.

I found that Comcast’s claims were not quite accurate. (A nod to the famous line from the movie “Network” would be accurate.) 

As I noted in an exchange on Twitter with comcastcares (one of Comcast’s reps on Twitter), the challenge is that given the change Comcast will be making will require a significant percentage of Comcast customers in this area –and I imagine most of the country where Comcast provides television services– to put a cable set top box on every television in the home where they want programming above Channel 30.  With that change, even digital ready TVs, DVRs and PCs (with Windows Media Center) will now need a new converter set-top box if customers wish want to receive stations above channel 30 on Comcast’s local channel map as these devices won’t be able to decrypt the encoded digital channels from Comcast above channel 30.

I asked Comcast in an email to reconsider the move to encrypt channels above Channel 30as they move to more digital channels, and keep the basic package of channels that I have today in the clear. It’s a poor customer experience to take channels and programming currently offered in the clear today on analogue and move them to digital channels that will require a set top box tomorrow.

The email response I received from Comcast indicates that even they may not understand the impact that the change will cause to their customers…

“In order to keep up with the demand for more HD channels, more programming options, and faster internet speeds, we must move out the analog signals. For every one analog channel, you can fit up to 10 standard digital definition channels or up to 3 HD channels. I apologize that you don’t think our efforts to assist customers through the digital migration is not enough.”

That’s fine, I’m glad that Comcast is reclaiming analogue bandwidth. I’m not asking to keep the analogue channels.  I understand that they must cut back on the analogue, as I personally support Comcast making the move to all digital in favour of digital tuners.

What I object to is the need to have to use a set top box in order to view channels above channel 30 even though I have digital tuners that are capable of receiving clear QAM channels. (More information here on QAM Tuners.)  As noted on the Wiki page on QAM Tuners (the tuner inside a digital ready television or set top box)…

An integrated QAM tuner allows the free reception of unscrambled digital programming sent “in the clear” by cable providers, usually local broadcast stations or cable radio channels. Which channels are scrambled varies greatly from location to location and can change over time; the majority of digital channels are scrambled because the providers consider them to be extra-cost options and not part of the “basic cable” package.

Today, I am able to watch CNN – part of my basic cable package – on my analogue as well as my digital ready televisions.  After Comcast makes the switch and encrypts the digital channel map (impacting all content above Channel 30, including CNN), I will be forced to use a set top box to decode these channels.  Quite simply, I object having to introduce another box into our home television systems — such as the DCT700 boxes from Comcast — and clumsily change channels via IR blasting.

Here’s a personal plea to the incoming Obama administration as well as the FCC.

As far as the digital television transition is concerned, the new administration would be wise to allow the transition to go ahead as planned on Feb. 17 but allow for a delay – a grace period – to the complete transition.  Such a “roll over period” (perhaps an additional 90 to 150 days) would allow for the processing and distribution of digital STB coupons and migration of those who have yet to make the change. During this period, both digital and older analog signals would available, and those consumers who have not made the transition to digital should see not only the channel displayed but a rolling warning notice that their ability to view the television station they’re watching will end unless they immediately migrate to digital equipment.

Further, the digital television transition is exacerbated by the decision of some cable companies to take the opportunity in February to make a digital switch of their own (as noted in the most above). Such a move will require subscribers to add a cable box for about every television in the household due to the encryption of the TV channels coming down the cable to the set. Cable companies should be required (perhaps by the FCC and pressure from consumer groups) to broadcast all channels currently freely available on analog (without the need for a converter box) to digital when and if the transition is made, providing consumers the same experience they enjoy with their digital-compatible televisions today.

I’ve spent much of my career working on audio and video products, and worked closely with cable, satellite and traditional broadcasters.  In my more than 20 years working in the industry, I can recall few items that have caused more consumer angst than the transition to digital television. And just like was the risk with the changes to daylight saving time around the world in 2007, I expect that people will be caught off guard and need to make the switch in a less than elegant way.

Added 012109, 3:00PM PAC: I saw this afternoon that Chairman Henry A. Waxman postponed today’s scheduled markup session on “H.R.__, The Digital Television Transition Extension Act of 2009” as noted here:

“The transition to digital television is not going well. There is not enough money for the converter box coupon program and millions of Americans could experience serious problems.

“Delay of the deadline is our only hope of lessening the impact on millions of consumers. Without a short, one-time extension, millions of households will lose all television reception. Late last week Senate Republicans blocked a bill to delay the transition date.

“I have postponed Committee consideration of the DTV markup to give the Committee more time to assess the implications of the Senate action.”

Tags: Windows, Media Center, television, DVR, Obama, policy.

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