HDTV Reception Outlook

The Washington Post recently published an article asking an important question about the digital TV transition in the United States. Will people who depend on over-the-air television be able to receive the same stations that they could before? The answer is: possibly not.

It seems unavoidable that many people won’t be able to receive the digital versions of analog stations they previously could receive. Part of the problem is the all or nothing nature of digital television, or what is called the “cliff effect”. Part of the problem is caused by the changed reception areas created for the new transmitters. The FCC has gone to great lengths to try and keep the digital reception areas as similar as possible to the analog areas. But it would be technically impossible to make them identical. This can work the other way too; the reception area of one digital station in our area moved considerably closer to us than the analog equivalent.

The article’s conclusion seems to be that many people will need to upgrade their antennas. The article is specific to the Washington, DC area, so they are mostly talking about people who have strong signals but suffer from multipath and other reception problems. Outdoor antennas are usually necessary for people in weaker signal areas, but indoor antennas can often work well for people in urban areas. Washington isn’t exactly a “fringe” reception area, so it is likely that something as simple as a Silver Sensor would suffice for many of these people.

If you do live in a poor reception area, then the situation is quite different. A better antenna won’t help if there is no signal to receive in the first place. Where we live, we will probably lose one or two channels after the transition. That is alleviated somewhat by the three extra sub-channels belonging to our local PBS station. Signal strengths should improve in February 2009 when all TV stations move to their final allocations and power levels. I’m hoping that those improvements will be enough to push some of the weaker stations back in the viewable category.

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