Friday, April 4, 2008

Some "Real" Digital TV Answers


Okay, when they were talking about doing this two or three years ago, I wrote to Senator Arlen Spector and said, basically: Don’t get rid of analog TV. And if you do, don’t spend millions or billions of dollars to buy people converter boxes.

I really think the whole switch was just to trick people who didn’t know better into having to buy new televisions or paying for TV. At its least sinister, there were still a few big electronic companies who stood to make a lot of money selling converter boxes or new TV’s to people who knew about what to do. And the coupons were just handing money to big electronic companies who make cheap electronic crap in Chinese factories and turn around and sell it at high profit to the American people, thereby taking advantage of everyone: the Chinese people, the American people, the federal government, anyone who pays taxes to the US, and anyone who just wants to be able to find out if that tornado is going to smack into their house and has just found out that their TV is no good, their TV band on their emergency radio is no good, and no one really cares about them anyway!

I still think all those things. I am really spoiled right now, because for the first time in my life, I get free TV. When I wrote my original letter about saving analog over the air signals, I had never actually lived anywhere that really had free over the air TV. No kidding. When my sister moved to Erie, she and her husband were sitting around and twiddling their thumbs waiting to scrape together enough cash for cable or dish, and I was like: “Go get an Antenna.” My sister has basically lived everywhere that I have lived, but her husband is a veteran and lived all over the country and overseas for a while, and neither one of them realized, that in a lot of places, TV is like radio, and you can just watch it with an antenna without paying for it. A lot of places in the country get a fuzzy channel or two with a big, ugly ariel, but we never lived close enough to a TV station to make it worth doing.

So, this year, when all those commercials started yapping about how TV was going away unless you did the thing, I was all mad. I finally had free TV, blah, blah,blah. There’s no way a digital signal is going to reach us out in oogah-boogah land. I get all my stations but one boosted through a translator that I have no idea of the origins or locations. And I checked every digital TV answer site and message board I could think of just to see if the analog signal death date has anything to do with translators serving rural areas without finding any real answers to my questions.

I am always very pessimistic about technological advances. Because I am a gadget person, and I really like electronic toys and computers and things like that, you’d think I’d be like: Oh digital TV! Now the world is perfect. But I’m typing this on a really nice imac that is connected to a 26k telephone line. I kid you not. That is the top speed. Most of the time it is 24, and sometimes 18. There is one phone company. They do not offer high speed. There’s no cable. There’s no wireless. That’s what you get. And all those nice calling packages that are advertised all the time: pay this little amount and get unlimited calling. We get the ads for that in our phone bills, too, but they don’t really offer those prices out here. You can’t even get them on the phone to complain.

In Pennsylvania, there is a law that says everyone has to be wired for DSL by 2010. I’m pretty sure there is a loophole that’s going to let the phone company get out of doing it up here, since it also takes about five days to get anyone to fix the lines when the phone goes out. I don’t even have a phone hooked up to the landline because even talking on it is so crackly and noisy.

And I did write to complain, but the answer I received was even more frustrating than the original situation. Apparently, there is another law in PA that says there has to be a line deployment plan, and the way the phone company decides who to rewire next is if enough people in the area sign a request for service. So, once there is X number of people or a percentage of the population, the phone company has to wire them. It sounds cool, but really, all it says is that they get put on a list to get wired. And by signing the request for service, you are also agreeing to subscribe to a year of their service, whenever it is that they install the lines. There is no time line, no prices, no real explanation. If you signed it and then moved or died or became Amish, what would happen then? Would whoever lives next in your house be forced to pay for a year of high speed internet service. And also, we pay more for phone service and for electrical service because of line maintenance fees. Probably that would be the case for internet, too. Call me a little whiney party pooper, but I’m guessing the phone company show up to put in those lines right about the time we get effective wireless or broadband by powerlines or something.

Meanwhile, I did write my local PA congress guy and told him that the whole requirement to purchase service aspect of the law was a little ridiculous considering the phone company has no commitment to do a thing for the consumer, and he wrote me back a nice letter assuring me it was a really good law and much to my advantage as a consumer that it got passed. Oh.

Meanwhile, back to digital TV. I decided the only way that I was going to be able to find out the answer to my questions was to just go and find out the answer to my questions. In February, right about the time they started advertising, I went to and signed up for the coupons. Okay. I signed up for two, even though I only have one TV. My sister has four thousand television sets, and she can use my spare coupon.

Even though, they started saying in early March coupons were being sent out, I didn’t get any until last week. They look like little debit cards , and they come with a nice list of places you can go in your area to get a converter. Most of those places are Walmart, but I went to a really little Radio Shack and got one. At a bigger store, there might have been more choice, and they might have been cheaper, but I ended up having to chip in about $20 dollars for the box even with the coupon. And there are also some converter boxes you can pick up all your digital and all of the remaining analog stations, but the one I bought does not. So, to watch digital, I need to hook up the box, and to watch analog, I need to pull the plug on the digital and rehook my antenna back into the TV.

Hooking it up was very easy. It came with a little Coax cable, and there is a plug in for AV cable, but it didn't come with one. I don't have any spaces left on my TV anyway, so that was just fine. You just plug the antenna in the back where it says "In from antenna" and plug the other cable in where it says "Out to TV" and put that one in the back of the TV.

Of course, this made remote control #5 for me, and all of these remotes are supposed to be universal, but none of them do everything that needs to be done just to change the channel or watch a DVD and turn up the volume.

Watch digital, you say? YES! I hooked the thing up and scanned through the available channels and found myself pleasantly surprised. Other than public TV, only one other station in Erie is using a full powered digital signal. That came in fine, and I was able to actually see the CW channel, which I’ve never looked at before. My cousins will be thrilled the next time they come to stay with me, because they always want to watch Smallville. Two other Erie channels showed up but didn’t actually come in, and I was able to get another CBS TV station from somewhere in Ohio that came in pretty well. Then, I unplugged the converter box and switched back to regular TV because I still get more channels that way.

I live on top of a hill, with very little interferance of any kind about 30-40 miles away from the TV towers. I still was just using my rabbit ears, and I suspect if I wanted to put some ugly big antenna on the top of my house, I’d get more TV, but I don’t want to! My cute little house doesn’t want a big ugly TV antenna on it!

So, the verdict is, I should be able to get local news and weather on one channel, and my cousins will be able to watch Smallville, but unless the signal strength gets a lot better, I’m going to lose all but CBS and PBS next year. Which is fine. I’m not one of those TV snobs. I really like Law and Order, so I’ll miss NBC. I hate PBS, and, ironically, it comes in perfectly. (You should just hear me cuss when I do a Marxist/feminist deconstruction of "Antiques Roadshow".) But I mostly like TV for local news and football but the radio is just fine for football, too. But if there’s a TV show I like, I’ll just watch it later on DVD. That’s what the library and Netflix are for.

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