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Ready or not, digital TV switch is on

June 11, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

o Not getting a TV signal? Call 1-888-CALL-FCC for guidance or to request the $40 converter box coupons.

For more information online, go to https://www.dtv2009.gov

TRI-STATE -- Those with a stake in Friday's nationwide switch to digital TV have their fingers crossed, hoping their signals won't be.

Conversion day has arrived after years of preparation, including a four-month delay beyond the original deadline.

For Hagerstown's WHAG-TV, known as NBC25, the switch is supposed to happen Friday at noon.

Hugh Breslin, the station's vice president and general manager, said it will be a carefully timed transition.

NBC25's over-the-air signal is moving to a channel now held by a Washington, D.C., station. If the D.C. station switches at noon, as planned, NBC25 can move at the same time, Breslin said.

Even if there's a delay, though, it won't affect Antietam Cable's transmission of NBC25, said Gene Hager, the cable company's president and general manager.

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Antietam Cable has a direct fiber connection to NBC25, so the switch will be seamless, he said.

Several other stations that Antietam Cable carries will be switching Friday, starting about 9 a.m.

"There might be some brief interruptions," Hager said.

Channel numbers won't change, he said.

The Federal Communications Commission says the nationwide digital TV conversion will make more channels and programming available and will clear airwaves for first responders to communicate with each other.

In 2005, Congress approved the switch. It was supposed to take effect Feb. 17, then was delayed until Friday.

Hager said the extra time was used to educate the public better about what is happening and why.

Viewers who rely on antennas and have analog televisions are in danger of losing their signal if they don't obtain a converter box.

Televisions connected to cable, satellite or other pay TV service don't need converter boxes, according to https://www.dtv2009.gov, a Department of Commerce Web site for the program.

Converter boxes are available at many retail stores for about $40 to $70, according to the FCC.

The Department of Commerce is giving households up to two $40 coupons apiece for converter boxes. Applications are due by July 31.

An FCC fact sheet issued Wednesday, quoting Nielsen estimates, says 3.43 percent of the Washington, D.C., market -- which includes Hagerstown -- isn't ready for the digital TV conversion.

The national average is 2.5 percent, FCC spokeswoman Edie Herman said.

Nielsen also estimated 7.7 percent of the D.C. market relies entirely on over-the-air broadcasts for TV.

Breslin and Hager said their companies hadn't received many questions about the particulars of the transition, especially lately.

"I think people pretty much get it," Breslin said.

In West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, Comcast Cable customers also will continue getting TV service.

However, analog customers won't get West Virginia's primary public TV station without a converter box, a change that took effect in April.

State Sen. John Unger II, D-Berkeley/Jefferson, said the move is connected to the digital TV conversion.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting has two other channels -- one in high definition -- for a total of three, spokeswoman Shawn Patterson said.

In a May 21 letter, U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., urged Comcast to keep a West Virginia Public Broadcasting channel on its basic tier.

Comcast's response to Capito says the cable company will offer a free digital set-top box to analog customers for at least a year.

Unger said there's an agreement that the offer will be extended to a second free year, but Comcast isn't allowed to promise anything beyond a year.

Paul Comes, a director of government affairs for Comcast who wrote the response to Capito, referred questions to company spokeswoman Aimee Metrick.

Metrick couldn't be reached for comment Thursday night.

Patterson said Comcast customers who don't get the set-top box will get a Washington, D.C., public broadcasting station, but will miss out on news and other programs specific to West Virginia.

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