Many rural areas will need these handy dandy converter boxes soon, despite a bill passed in Congress last week that delayed conversion to digital TV transmission

[imgcontainer right] [img:digital-tv-converter-box.jpg] Many rural areas will need these handy dandy converter boxes soon, despite a bill passed in Congress last week that delayed conversion to digital TV transmission [/imgcontainer]

Last week Congress voted to delay the upcoming digital TV transition date until June 12. The decision was provoked by the fact that an estimated 20 million Americans remain unprepared to lose access to over-the-air TV broadcasts. Over three million are currently on a waiting list to receive $40 coupons intended to defray the cost of buying DTV converter boxes for old TVs. Funds for the government coupon program effectively ran out in January, and have not yet been replenished.

Delaying the switch until June 12 should mean a sigh of relief for these unprepared viewers. Turns out, not so much, at least for those living in rural areas and small cities.

Congress left a loophole in the date change, allowing local stations the option to turn off their analog signals as early as Feb. 17 if they chose. And across the country, many stations serving rural areas are deciding to do just that.

According to a list of station transition dates compiled by the Federal Communications Commission, about one-third of stations across the country are going digital early — switching off their old analog transmitters, and cutting off viewers who haven’t made the switch to digital. In many states, it is predominantly stations serving small cities and rural markets that are opting to switch early.

By contrast, in major urban areas, most stations seem to favor delaying the transition until June 17,  giving city residents four more months to prepare for the switch. Assuming that Congress provides additional funding to the government’s coupon program, that gives coupon applicants at least a fighting chance of receiving a coupon and buying a converter box in time for the switch.

(And that’s not the only problem rural television watchers may face. David Migoya  of The Denver Post reports that as many as two of every five television translators — the gizmos that relay free TV signals into far-flung areas — won’t work or will be turned off when the switch to digital takes place. “I don’t really think people fully appreciate how big a problem this is going to be,” R. Kent Parsons, vice president of the National Translator Association and regarded by the government and private sector as the leading expert in the field, told Migoya.)

Rural viewers who fear being left in TV darkness should contact their local TV stations and ask when they are planning to make the switch to digital. In many cases, local station managers are the ones making the decision; they may need to hear from local residents.

A study by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights shows that low-income and elderly people, those with disabilities, immigrants and non-English speakers will be disproportionately impacted by the DTV transition, which will affect everyone who watches over-the-air TV using a set-top or rooftop antenna. Cable and satellite subscribers will not be immediately affected; additionally, those who bought “digital-ready” TVs within the last 2 years won’t need to do anything to prepare for the switch.

The FCC has a helpful list of all TV stations organized by location, with early-transitioners marked in red. 

The consumer matchmaker site Retrevo is providing a free service connecting folks holding extra coupons with those in need. 

The author is director of Reclaim the Media, a media justice organization based in Seattle, and editor of the DTV information website

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