Editorial: Shifting Signals; Delay Switch to Digital TV (Valley News)

President-elect Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont are right to want to hit the "pause" button on a plan to switch the nation to all-digital television on Feb. 17. If the government doesn't delay the change, millions of Americans -- particularly elderly, poor and rural residents -- may see their screens go blank.

The change from analog to digital signals is designed to make more efficient use of the broadcast spectrum. A significant part of the push comes from a wireless industry that wants to expand its reach and, thus, its profits. But the change could also produce genuine public benefits, such as improved emergency communications and crisper television reception.

Those potential benefits pale, however, compared with the chaos currently surrounding the switch. Households that use rabbit ears or rooftop antennas need a special converter box to capture the digital signals, but a federal program established to supply $40 coupons to defray the cost of the converters has, at least temporarily, run out of money. That means as many as 8 million households nationwide will find themselves on a waiting list for help in paying for boxes that cost as much as $70.

In hilly regions of New Hampshire and Vermont, even homes with converter boxes may have difficulty capturing the digital signals, staff writer John Gregg reported in Tuesday's Valley News. The digital signals will be sent on ultra-high frequency (UHF) channels rather than the very high frequency (VHF) band used by stations such as WCAX-TV in Burlington. UHF signals don't curve around the region's hilltops as well as VHF ones, increasing the chances of black holes in reception.

Obama's transition team has urged Congress to push back the Feb. 17 cutoff date, which would allow legislators to appropriate the money needed to provide the coupons to households still relying on over-the-air TV rather than on cable or satellite service. It would also give the National Telecommunications and Information Administration more time to deal with an expected flood of last-minute inquiries from consumers seeking help in making the change.

Sanders last week introduced a bill that would not only further subsidize digital converters and antennas but would also require cable and satellite providers to offer basic monthly service for $10 to households losing their over-the-air reception. "I am particularly worried about the elderly, low-income folks who may not know how to install the converter, and currently are not prepared to install an antenna," Sanders said. John Adams, co-owner of Satellite Video in White River Junction, said a good rooftop antenna can cost as much as $600, including installation.

Loss of television reception may not be as grave an issue as unemployment, soaring health care costs and intractable conflicts in the Middle East. But given that television sets provide a vital link to the world for residents seeking news, emergency information and entertainment, the federal government must keep its promises to make the transition to digital as smooth as possible. In these months of long shadows, people must not be left in the dark.