pnms-dtv-010709 As DTV conversion looms, sales of TVs, antennas, converters pick up

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PORTLAND — David Munster’s TV on Forest Avenue hasn’t experienced much demand for rooftop television antenna installations since the advent of cable and satellite TV in the late 1980s.
But with the transition to all-digital broadcasts looming less than six weeks away, viewers of over-the-air TV are also upgrading their antennas, in addition to buying the converter boxes needed to continue receiving TV signals.
“I’ve been restringing old (antennas) and doing some new installations,” said Munster, whose family has operated the business for 35 years. Munster said he’d been working on rooftop antenna jobs up until the first week of December, but will not start up again until the spring because of the weather. 
That’s not good news for some antenna users who have procrastinated, because about a month from now, television stations will begin sending their broadcasts over the airwaves using a digital signal.
Users of roof-mounted antennas or indoor “rabbit ears” will have to purchase digital-to-analog converters to keep their analog TVs working. A more expensive alternative is to buy a new television set that capable of reading a digital signal.
The Federal Communications Commission mandated the digital transition because these signals take up less bandwidth than analog signals. The switch is intended to free up needed air space for emergency communications, while excess airwaves will be auctioned off to help meet the increasing demand for wireless uses.
Many television stations are already simulcasting digital and analog signals, which reduces the signal quality of each. When stations make the switch on Feb. 17 and fully power their digital signals, viewers now having troubling getting good digital signals should see those signals improve and, as a result, have better pictures and sound.
WCBB, Maine’s Public Broadcasting station, will make the full switch to digital on Sunday, Jan. 11, meaning those without converters or digital televisions will no longer be able to tune in to channel 10.
Munster said demand for digital converters remains high. But the federally mandated switch to digital, he said, has improved other areas of his business, too.
“Sales of televisions are up as well,” Munster said. “With the (digital) conversion coming up soon, it’s swinging people’s decision on whether to buy now or later.”
The federal government established a program to help over-the-air TV viewers make the switch to digital by offering up to two $40 rebate cards to offset the cost of the converter boxes, which typically range from $40 to $80. The last day to apply for the coupons, which expire 90 days after being issued, is March 31. They are available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
But that program, however, is scheduled to run out of money well ahead of that deadline, adding a layer of urgency for viewers who will be scrambling to upgrade their televisions at the last minute. Of the $1.38 billion allotted, $1.1 billion worth of coupons have been ordered as of Dec. 11, according to the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
That means some analog TV viewers may have to pay the full price of a converter box, unless Congress approves more money or allows the NTIA to issue coupons above the $1.38 million threshold before issued coupons expire.
Although most TV viewers will be able to use their existing antennas with their converters, others who live in low-lying areas or between tall buildings may have to upgrade.
While capturing an over-the-air television station analog signal can be easy – provided one has some aluminum foil and a lot of patience – the digital signal is less forgiving. When the signal is strong, the picture is clear and sound is crisp. If the signal is weak, however, the picture pixelates and sounds skips, or the channel is lost altogether.
Munster said sales of indoor antennas have increased ahead of the conversion. Viewers with the standard rabbit ears, priced at $20, are typically coming in for a flat, $60 omnidirectional antenna, he said. If that doesn’t work, shoppers typically try the $80 powered antenna, which boosts the signal.
If all of those options fail, Munster said he has five different types of rooftop antennas for customers to consider. But don’t expect installation to occur until at least a month after the mandated conversion.
“I have a half dozen installations scheduled for March,” he said. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or 

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IMG_1808.JPGDigital TV converters can cost from $40 to $80, and a federal rebate program is almost out of money.
IMG_1812.JPGDavid Munster says the upcoming transition to digital television is boosting sales of TVs, antennas and digital converters at his Forest Avenue store. Just don’t ask him to install a rooftop antenna right now.