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Switch to DTV complicated

SATURDAY, DEC. 6, 2008

BOISE – When television broadcasting switches to digital on Feb. 17, most Americans won’t be affected, because they already get their TV signals from cable or satellite. But in Idaho, more than 400,000 people still get their TV signals over the air – a percentage that’s well over the national average of 15 percent.

In the Boise area, dubbed the Treasure Valley, a whopping 27 percent of households get their TV over the air, and they’ll all have to do something before Feb. 17 or they’ll stop being able to watch TV.

“We’ve been pretty aggressive at trying to communicate to at least our viewers the fact that the conversion is coming … and they really need to take some action if they want a smooth transition from the television that they have now to the next step,” said Peter Morrill, general manager of Idaho Public Television.

Idaho Public TV broadcasts statewide, using a series of transmitters and translators. By federal decree, all of its primary transmitters will shut down their analog transmissions on Feb. 17 and broadcast exclusively in digital signals. That’ll also happen for the major translator that serves Lewiston, so residents of all of the state’s major population areas will have to have digital conversion boxes or very recently manufactured TV’s, plus an antenna, to continue getting over-the-air signals.

But here’s where it gets complicated. For the rural areas across the state served by translators rather than transmitters, the signal will keep coming in analog, and the older TV’s will continue working after Feb. 17, and possibly for up to three years. The inputs to those translators are being upgraded to digital – meaning viewers will get much clearer pictures – but the broadcasts to homes still will be analog.

That’s the case in Bonners Ferry, Grangeville, Juliaetta, Kamiah, Kellogg, Kooskia, Priest Lake, Sandpoint and St. Maries.

Some of those translators already have been upgraded. “We have been upgrading all of the sites over the last two and a half years,” Morrill said. “People probably, whether they have consciously noticed it, are probably getting a much nicer-looking picture.”

But in Coeur d’Alene, Moscow, Lewiston and the main population centers in southern Idaho, the new, crystal-clear digital signal will be the only thing available after Feb. 17, and it can only be picked up by those with digital TVs or converter boxes (or cable or satellite).

Now’s where it gets even more complicated. Idaho Public TV has identified four major areas where after the changeover, there won’t be any over-the-air TV signal at all, at least from IPTV. All are in southern Idaho: The small city of Idaho City, 45 miles northeast of Boise; the upper Wood River Valley, including Sun Valley, Ketchum and Hailey; the east side of Emmett, with downtown as the division point; and the large, upscale Harris Ranch neighborhood in southeast Boise.

In all four of those locations, the topography interferes with TV transmission, but all can now get a snowy or staticky TV signal over the air. With digital TV, snow and static are a thing of the past – there’s either a perfectly clear picture, or no picture at all. But with the low-quality signal that reaches those areas, the result will be no picture at all.

Over-the-air digital signals don’t “bounce” as well as the old analog signals in Idaho’s mountainous terrain, Morrill said. Idaho Public TV is pushing the Federal Communications Commission to offer new translator channels to help with such areas, but so far, it hasn’t happened.

“They have not had an application process for many years,” Morrill said. “We’ve identified those areas as being big areas of concern.”

He added, “It’s going to be a rather sudden change. … Analog will just be shut down.”

That is, of course, unless you’re in Bonners Ferry, Grangeville, Juliaetta, Kamiah, Kellogg, Kooskia, Priest Lake, Sandpoint or St. Maries.

In southern Idaho, communities like McCall are in the same category – old TVs will continue to work there after the changeover.

The federal rules and requirements, and the patchwork effect they have on Idaho, make the whole thing tough to get across to viewers, Morrill said, but IPTV is trying hard. “It is not a simple message to communicate,” he said. “It’s a complex message. A lot of people just turn on their TV and it’s there.”

For detailed information and links to help you find out how the digital changeover affects you, visit Idaho Public TV’s “DTV Transition” page at

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or For more news from Boise go to www.spokesmanreview. com/boise.

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