Digital Transition Starts Early In Hawaii

Federal regulators will be watching Hawaii closely on Thursday, as the state makes the move off analog TV signals early because of an endangered bird.

Hundreds of people in the state have been calling support lines for help while purchasing digital converters amongst the rush to go digital.

Many contractors and volunteers are making house calls to help residents hook up their converter boxes.

“If I had to do this myself, I would probably get so frustrated and break something,” said florist Arlene Sato. “I can do the creative stuff, but don’t ask me to do anything mechanical.”

Earl Mostoles, who is paid $20 per box by the government, helped Arlene set up her box in five minutes and found digital broadcasts from two of the four major networks.

By noon Thursday, all stations in the state are expected to be transmitting their digital signals at full strength.  Analog towers will air information about the transition instead of normal programming.

Officials estimate that 20,000 homes in Hawaii get their television broadcasts over the air, which means they will need new TVs or converter boxes to view programming.

“We’re desperately asking people to set up their converter boxes early so they don’t all call us Thursday,” said Mike Rosenberg, of KITV, Honolulu’s ABC affiliate. “Hopefully, we will not be inundated with calls, but we’re prepared.”

The digital changeover has been mandated by Congress to free up airwaves for other services, but the change in Hawaii is happening early so that analog towers can be taken down before the nesting season of an endangered bird called the dark-rumped petrel.

The rest of the U.S. will go digital on Feb. 17, despite President-elect Barack Obama’s request to delay the shut-off due to lack of federal funds to subsidize converter boxes.

The Federal Communications Commission chairman believes postponing would further confuse people.

Many lawmakers are divided over the subject, but all agree that something needs to be done to ensure that consumers are ready.

Over 8 million U.S. homes use analog TV sets to watch over-the-air channels.

“We’re just going to hold our breaths and see what happens Thursday,” said Lyle Ishida of the FCC.

Over half of the 800 phone calls to a support center run by the FCC were to seek technical help.  A majority of the rest sought direction as to what was needed to prepare for the transition.

According to Ishida, 53,000 Hawaii residents requested converter box coupons, and so far 16,000 have been redeemed. 

Those applying for coupons this month are out of luck, Ishida added.

Some with converter boxes still might see channels go black.  Although the digital signal offers a better picture, it either comes in all the way, or not at all.

Those with poor analog reception will likely need more powerful antennas to get the digital broadcasts.

Bruce Bottorff, spokesman for AARP’s Hawaii chapter, was also worried about elderly residents who are less likely to be familiar with new technology.

“There is a broad concern too,” Bottorff said, “that some older consumers might be vulnerable to sales pitches for new and expensive TV sets rather than for cheaper converter boxes.”

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