Friday, April 4, 2008

Local Rotary Gets The Scoop On Conversion To Digital Signals

Article In Lowell Sun, April 3, 2008

Could you go dark?
Local Rotary gets the scoop on conversion to digital signals
By Hiroko Sato,
Article Last Updated: 04/03/2008 01:05:45 PM EDT

CHELMSFORD — “Inventor” is Albert Jean’s middle name.

For many years, the Dracut accountant has captured analog TV signals through a V-shaped, tinfoil-covered antenna he made from scratch. The device even rotates to catch the waves when he pulls attached ropes and transmits signals to TV sets downstairs through the wires between the walls.

“But, with digital, it’s going to mess that (device) up,” Jean said of a federal law requiring most of the country’s TV stations to switch from analog to digital signals early next year. Instead of his hand-made antenna, Jean will need a signal converter resembling a cable box — and so will 34.6 million other households across the county if they want to continue using their analog TV sets without cable or satellite service.

On Feb. 17, 2009, all “full-power” TV stations will pull the plug on their analog signal transmitters. Full-power stations are those whose signals reach anywhere within a 40-mile radius, and all but a few stations in Massachusetts fall into this category, according to Alex von Lichtenberg, general manager for WUNI-TV 27 and WUTF-TV 66, Spanish-language stations out of Needham.

Von Lichtenberg, also a regional representative for the National Association of Broadcasters, spoke yesterday before the Merrimack Valley Rotary Club at Skip’s Restaurant. He said the national organization is concerned many people will wake next February 17 and wonder why their TV screens have gone black

No more analog means you won’t be able to catch free over-the-air television without a TV set that has a built-in digital tuner or signal converter. Those who subscribe to cable television, fiber optics and/or satellite services are not affected because providers will convert digital signals to analog, von Lichtenberg said.

However, there are 19.6 million households in the U.S., including 15,000 in Massachusetts, that use only analog TV sets to receive free over-the-air waves. An additional 15 million households, including 250,000 in the Bay State, have one or more analog TV sets that are not hooked up to cable or other systems, according to von Lichtenberg.

After next Feb. 17, these people must get a digital-to-analog signal converter, which costs between $50 and $100.

Von Lichtenberg said the federal government is offering up to two coupons worth $40 each toward the purchase of the box to any household that requests them. Coupons are available by calling 1-800-DTV-2009 or by visiting

So why has the Congress decided to mandate the switch? Von Lichtenberg said digital TV provides dramatically clearer pictures and better sound, and can carry more programs. Also, transmitting digital waves consumes one-third of the energy that analog does, saving TV stations considerable money, he added.

But the real push stems from the government’s desire to raise revenue and mobile communication companies’ eagerness to expand their bandwidth. The government recently auctioned off available wavelength to the industry for $19.6 billion, von Lichtenberg said. It was also important for the government to keep part of the available wavelength available for national emergency communications, he said.

Rotary members had questions for von Lichtenberg.

“(The change) is unfair to certain people that I know,” said John Carroll, an attorney who has a friend who adamantly uses only free over-the-air signals. The $40 coupons address the problem, Carroll added.

Debi Farnsworth, owner of Chamdry Carpet Cleaning in Dracut, was concerned about analog TV sets winding up in landfills. Von Lichtenberg said he doesn’t believe the federal government or Congress knows exactly what to do with the TV sets, all of which contain hazardous materials.

For more information, visit the Federal Communications Commission’s Web site at

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