Crystal Clear TV, Unless You Live Too Far Away

There's an untold story developing in the conversion to digital television.

No. It's not all of the chatter about consumers needing more time (and a coupon from the federal government) to buy and install a converter box. It's also not the legislation that President Obama just pushed through congress to delay the formal switch until June.

All of that will soon be washed over by a new realization, especially in the most rural parts of the country. Digital signals drop off abruptly at the end of their range, whereas analog signals fade out gradually. The point has gone without much discussion, apparently because it is hard to say how far digital signals will travel. It depends on the wattage of the broadcaster, tower height, terrain, trees, etc.

If the analog signals you currently receive suffer static, lines, fuzz, etc. that is an indication you are at the outer range of the broadcast reach. The same station, broadcast, digitally, may not reach you:
Rush took the box home and plugged it into the antenna on top of her TV.

"The picture came up crystal clear," she says. "It was thrilling. Until about five to seven minutes later, when the picture started to pixelate. Or we'd get a bar in the middle of the screen that said 'No signal.' "

Rush says she gets uninterrupted reception only about half of the time. To make her reception any better, Rush thinks she would have to put an expensive rooftop antenna on her house.

"That's not what they advertised," Rush protests. "That's not what the message has been — you slap the box in, and life will be good."
I first caught onto this issue just a month or two ago when I heard a vague reference to digital signals dropping off abruptly. Then last week on National Public Radio (sorry can't find the story link), I heard 75 miles referenced as a ballpark distance that digital signals travel.

Seventy five miles? There is a hell of a lot of rural people that live more than 75 miles from an urban center large enough to have a broadcast television station. From a different NPR story:
Michael Copps, the new acting chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is worried the number will be more substantial. Copps recently addressed the FCC's Consumer Advisory Committee.

"Some consumers, through no fault of their own, are going to lose one or more channels as a result of the transition," Copps told the committee." That we did not understand this better long ago through better analysis, tests and trial runs is, to me, mind-boggling."

The problem started to come home for me when my parents called this week. They live in rural northwest Iowa where they receive analog signals for stations broadcasting from Des Moines (150 miles away), Sioux City (100 miles away) and Fort Dodge (60 miles away). They hooked their brand new digital converter box up, and lost the stations in Sioux City and Des Moines. Only the Fort Dodge station came in digitally.

The Sioux City station and at least one of the Des Moines stations are already broadcasting a simultaneous digital signal, but alas, it seems they are too far away to receive it.

Sure. They could get satellite television. But that's not cheap. And for many poor people, especially during these tough economic times, the satellite bill might be out of reach. For these people especially, broadcast television is important. Having equitable access to news and information is a democratizing force that we should take seriously. It's not just about having access to Oprah or your favorite reality show. Broadcast television also carries breaking news, coverage of elections, and video of presidential addresses into our homes.

To be certain, television networks have not lived up to their potential in recent years. I'll be the first join the chorus calling for media responsibility and media reform. But part of that must also mean equitable and far reaching access.

Postscript: We have mentioned on this blog before that the conversion to digital television may open up an opportunity on the rural broadband front.

Postscript 2:
If you live in a rural area and have tried out your digital converter box, let us know what happened in the comments.

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