In less than six weeks, the nation's television broadcasters are due to shut off their analog signals and begin transmitting in digital — potentially blacking out as many as 8 million U.S. households that rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air channels.
That reality hit lawmakers and the incoming Obama administration this week after the Commerce Department ran out of money for coupons to subsidize digital converter boxes. Viewers who don't have cable or satellite service or a TV with a digital tuner will need the boxes to keep older analog sets working.
The coupon program funding shortfall was a key reason behind the Obama transition team's call for Congress to delay the Feb. 17 analog shutoff. Yet the problem with the subsidy program is just one of several hurdles that appear to be in the way of a smooth digital transition.
One big potential pitfall is that many people who think they are prepared for the analog shutoff could lose some channels — or possibly even lose reception entirely — unless they purchase a new antenna.
That's because many stations will shift their broadcast footprints with the switch to digital by changing transmitter locations, antenna patterns or power levels.
The Federal Communications Commission has said 18 percent of the nation's full-power television stations will have a digital signal that reaches at least 2 percent fewer viewers than their current analog broadcasts.
Some viewers could lose signals because of the so-called digital "cliff effect." Unlike analog signals, digital broadcasts come in clear or don't come in at all, meaning that people on the fringes of analog coverage areas who currently get fuzzy reception will lose that reception entirely.
These viewers will likely need more powerful indoor or outdoor antennas — in addition to converter boxes — to maintain their existing reception. Yet critics say the government has done too little to educate consumers about this issue and is not subsidizing the cost of an antenna, which can be between $75 and $150.
What's more, consumers figure to discover they need this equipment after the transition actually happens, noted Barclays Capital analyst Alan Miles. And that will be in the dead of winter for much of the country.
"Winter in Vermont is not when you want to be installing a rooftop antenna," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is sponsoring a bill that would, among other things, expand the coupon program to help subsidize antenna purchases and installations. "Television is a connection to the outside world for many people. But if you're 80 years old and living on Social Security, you may not be able to buy an antenna or hire someone to install it."
Another thing that consumers may not realize until the transition is upon them is that broadcast station channel assignments will move around. Viewers will have to make their converter boxes re-scan for the new assignments after the changeover.
This issue, too, has received little attention and could lead many consumers to incorrectly assume their converter boxes don't work after the transition.