Digital switch causes some concern in NW - The Explorer: Pima Pinal

Digital switch causes some concern in NW

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Posted: Wednesday, January 21, 2009 12:00 am | Updated: 1:28 pm, Mon Apr 18, 2011.

There’s not much that Joan Davidson doesn’t reuse. A look around her Northwest home attests to that.

She collects the little stickers found on apples, bananas and other produce to create intricate geometric patterns on canvas.

“I’m an avid recycler,” Davidson said.

She recycles more than paper, though. She watches a hand-me-down Sony television that was straight off the assembly line in time for the first inauguration of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

But the scheduled conversion from analog to digital television has Davidson worried that her TV will wind up in landfills or create health hazards in the salvage yards of China, where many aged American appliances meet their demise.

What’s more, she thinks that something just isn’t right with the planned switchover.

In particular, she thinks the digital converters that should allow older sets to continue working for people who don’t want to purchase cable or satellite television aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.

She bought one of the digital conversion boxes to upgrade her aged set in preparation for the so-called “big switch,” when TV stations cease to broadcast in analog.

But when she hooked up the converter, she found her viewing options drastically reduced.

“It wiped out everything but PBS, CBS and Telemundo,” Davidson said.

The same set without the converter box used to get nine channels.

When Davidson set up her 97-year-old mother’s TV with a converter, she too lost most of the stations she had before the new technology.

A scientist by trade, Davidson was fairly certain it wasn’t an issue with her technical abilities, so she started to make some phone calls.

What she learned surprised her.

Engineers at some of the local network affiliates said that her Northwest side home likely sits in a “digital shadow.”

Much like an object casts a shadow along the ground when it stands in front of the light source, the Santa Catalina Mountains stand between her and numerous other households blocking the signals sent from atop Mt. Bigelow at the east end of the range.  

“That doesn’t explain my mother’s situation,” Davidson said.

Her mother lives on Tucson’s east side with a clear line of sight to Mt. Bigelow, where most television channels transmit from — a few stations still maintain towers on Tumamoc Hill on the city’s west side.

There, Davidson learned, the apartment building that her mother lives in and the surrounding buildings can interfere with digital signals, causing a ricochet effect.

“The people who are having issues (with digital reception) certainly aren’t crazy, there are issues out there,” said Stephen Claasen, a broadcast engineer with KUAZ, Tucson’s Public Broadcasting Service affiliate.

Despite advertisements for “the big switch,” set to take place possibly by Feb. 17, most television stations have been broadcasting digital signals for years.

What federal regulators have planned for next month is to turn off the old analog frequency that allows people who still use set-top rabbit ears or rooftop antennas to watch television. Davidson, like people in more than 15 million other households according to the Federal Communication Commission, relies on that over-the-air TV signal.

According to the FCC’s digital television Web site, most people who currently receive over-the-air TV signals should only need to buy a digital converter to continue viewing the same as before.

The FCC says, “dependable reception of over-the-air digital TV programming will require the same type of signal reception equipment.” 

That’s not the case for Davidson, who for years has watched TV just fine without the aid of an external antenna.

But with the converter, her set has trouble holding on to a signal and breaks up more often than it comes through.

“For the most part, an outdoor antenna is needed,” Claasen said.

Even that might not be the fix that Davidson and others need.

She already installed a digital antenna at her mother’s house, but to no avail.

“We put an HD antenna on my mom’s and it didn’t do anything,” Davidson said.

For people in the Tucson area, geography could play a big part in their viewing options once the digital switchover is complete.

Because of the relatively large land mass the city covers, coupled with the few transmitting towers, residents in outlying areas may find it difficult to receive the digital signals.

Places like Picture Rocks likely sit in a large digital shadow, Claasen said. But even residents in less remote areas of the Northwest or the Catalina Foothills could find television viewing next to impossible once the transition is complete.

Using the Web site tvfool.com, which locates TV transmitters and coverage areas, Claasen found that at The Explorer office, for example — near Ina and Oracle roads — TV reception would be limited.

“It’s going to take a really big antenna,” Claasen said.

In some areas that could mean people need antennas taller than 30 feet.

At her own house, Davidson doesn’t plan to spend the $100 for an antenna and another $200 or more to have it installed on her roof. Nor does she intend to buy cable or satellite TV.

“I’m not going to do anything,” she said. “I’m a Spanish student, so I love to watch Telemundo.”

Delay proposed

Democratic lawmakers Henry Waxman (Calif.) and John Rockefeller (W.Va.) recently proposed legislation that would delay the implementation of digital television.

They want the switch postponed until at least June 12 to give people more time to prepare for the impending change.

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