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Digital TV Gets First Test In North Carolina

In becoming the first U.S. city to turn off analog TV signals, Wilmington, N.C., is serving as a testing ground for the national switch to digital TV coming in February.

"First in flight, first in digital," was how Wilmington, N.C., Mayor Bill Saffo described his city's role as the test bed for the coming national switchover from analog to digital-only TV broadcasts.

"First in frustration, first in confusion," is how he might have described the event when area residents began calling when their TVs went dead or when their screens turned to fuzzy images after analog signals were shut off Monday. The FCC began the test in preparation for the Feb. 17 nationwide switch, when millions of older analog TVs not connected to cable or satellite are scheduled to go dead.

The government is supplying two $40 coupons for converter boxes for viewers with older TV sets. Expecting problems, the FCC and other interested parties are monitoring the Wilmington test to prepare for the February event. Nielson Media Research has estimated that more than 13 million U.S. households still receive analog TV.

"The measure of success here in Wilmington is not what happens today or tomorrow, but it's what we learn from it," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told The Wall Street Journal. Martin and Mayor Saffo "activated" a giant mock-up switch to signal the start of the test.

Almost immediately, an FCC toll-free number began lighting up with calls from perplexed customers, many of whom had trouble getting their set-top digital converter boxes to work properly.

Saffo noted that the FCC had alerted consumers in advance of the test, spreading the word at community events. Firefighters from the Wilmington Fire Department helped many housebound consumers buy converters and get them working. Most consumers seemed to be switching over to digital TV without problems, but a more conclusive verdict won't be in for a few days.

The spectrum that transmitted analog TV signals for decades was auctioned off earlier this year by the FCC -- most of it to Verizon Wireless and AT&T, which plan to use it for new wireless services. The 700-MHz spectrum is particularly valuable because of its robust propagation features and its capability to pass through buildings. As Americans switched to cable and satellite to watch TV in recent decades, most of the spectrum swathe was not used and many felt it could be better used to improve mobile phone reception.

National broadcasters are on hand in Wilmington, working with the FCC to effect a smooth national switchover in February. Foreign observers were also in attendance, including a producer from the Japan Broadcasting Corp. Japan is preparing its own switchover to all-digital TV in a few years.

Observing that the switchover represents the biggest change in TV since color was introduced in the 1950s, Martin has said the most important thing about the Wilmington test is to learn what can be replicated from it for the main event in February.

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