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Montana Angst with Digital Conversion

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A typical digital converter box A typical digital converter box

Public hearing set to discuss issues with television districts regarding digital conversion law

Television stations didn’t always broadcast 24 hours straight. In days past, the committed television viewer, watching long enough, could count on an image of the American flag, and the sounds of the Star Spangled Banner, right before the TV screen turned to static.

On February 17, 2009, full power television stations will cease broadcasting an analog signal; from that point on, broadcasts will only be available via a digital signal - which many older televisions are not equipped to receive. Without preparation, viewers used to 24-hour-a-day programming may find themselves reduced to looking at static on the screen once more.

For those who access television airwaves using a rooftop antennae, or ‘rabbit ears’ on their set, a digital television, or an analog-to-digital converter box for their analog TV, will be necessary in order to continue to receive broadcasts. The government will provide each household with two coupons, valued up to $40 each, to purchase these converters. The cost of the converters has been estimated at $40 to $70 each. Coupons are available online (www.dtv2009.gov), or by calling 1-888-388-2009.

If you connect via satellite or cable, however, your satellite or cable company is responsible for providing you with any needed conversion equipment, and television reception should go on uninterrupted.

Making that process happen - indeed, converting operations from distributing an analog to a digital signal - is the purview of the Thompson Falls TV District, and they have some concerns - enough so that they’ve asked Sanders County Commissioners to step in and resolve all issues by conducting a public hearing.

Therefore, in conjunction with the Thompson Falls TV Board, the Sanders County Commissioners will be holding a public hearing on television districts and communications on Thursday, April 17. The meeting will take place at the Thompson Falls High School Alternative Building at 6:30 pm.

Discussion will cover proposed actions and changes in doing business for the Thompson Falls TV District. Digital conversion plans for all TV boards will be shown for comment. The school-based PBS low-power stations, aired on channel 36 and cable channel 12, will also be a topic for discussion in all phases.

Cable signals at Thompson Falls that also feed off the local TV district’s channels will be similarly impacted; a contract with the cable company will be required in order to allow continued use of local signals.

Final choices will be made following the public comment portion of the meeting.

The hearing will be televised live on local PBS channel 36, and an edited DVD for future use and documentation will also be produced.

At issue is a divide between the three Eastern (TV) Districts, and the Western District which serves Trout Creek, Noxon and Heron. "The Western District... to date has refused to come to the table to discuss working together to meet the challenges of FCC mandated 2009 major station conversion from analog to digital technology," said TFTV co-chairman and coalition member Ed Thompson.

"Tobo Leivestad, current board chair for the Western District, has stated he has enlisted the help of Noxon school to aid him in seeking information to support his opinion that the number of citizens who watch the District’s translated stations is so minimal, it isn’t justifiable to invest in the expense of digital conversion," Ed stated. "He states that most citizens have now converted to dish, satellite or similar commercial entities and we no longer need translators or low-power PBS stations."

That decision, Ed states, will impact choices available to the remaining television districts for handling the conversion.

"The three Eastern Districts have conceptually agreed to use a microwave system to bring Montana stations to the entire county," he explained. "The revenues the Western District could bring to the table make the microwave choice doable - without that contribution, other choices would most likely be sought and the Eastern Districts would most likely have to seek their own individual, less desirable and less expensive half fixes."

Thompson says, "Sanders County Commissioners have been asked to step in and resolve all issues and begin the Public hearing process and investigation process on current law and any revisions that need to be taken to the Montana Legislature," he added. "We need a decision within the next couple of months to allow construction to begin on the choice we make before snow flies in October and we no longer can make changes on the mountains."

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Landon Otis

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