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Area analog broadcasts to continue beyond DTV transition

WILLMAR -- Melissa Geer is fighting an information battle of sorts with major broadcasters, and she doesn't stand a chance of winning.

While they have sophisticated ad campaigns, she makes phone calls and sends out postcards from her home near Willmar, which doubles as the office of tiny UHF Television Inc.

Her message: the broadcast translator -- which broadcasts most of the analog television that people view within a 25-mile radius of Willmar -- will not switch to digital Friday. They will be switching eventually, just not yet.

"We've been getting a lot of phone calls," said Geer of viewers who are confused with the conflicting messages they're hearing.

The federal mandate to switch entirely to digital television June 12 doesn't apply to low-power translator transmitters like UHF Television Inc. -- which broadcasts 11 stations, including the major network affiliates from the Twin Cities, through its translator tower in Willmar -- but applies only to high-power television broadcast stations.

Those high-power broadcast stations have been heavily advertising the digital switch as of late. Those ads get dutifully rebroadcasted by rural translator stations, even though they don't apply to their viewers.

Ed Smith, station manager and chief engineer at KSAX in Alexandria, gets tired just talking about it.

"It's messy," he said. "It's very hard to describe all the details."

The essence of it, though, he said, is that for small translators like the one KSAX operates in Willmar, switching from analog to digital would not be cost-effective. In rural areas, he said, translator stations are strategically placed to avoid broadcasting signals where there is nobody around to receive them.

"If we made the investment to send out one big digital signal, we'd be broadcasting to a lot of fish and birds," he said.

The federal government knows this, said Smith, so it has held off on mandating small rural translators to make the digital switch.

While no mandate currently exists for low-power translators to switch to digital, there will be one at some point in the future, said Mark Wigfield of the Federal Communications Commission.

"There will be a conversion, I just can't speculate on any dates," he said.

The best course of action for rural residents, he said, is to make sure their digital converter boxes can receive both analog and digital signals. That way, when rural translators begin to switch at staggered intervals, viewers will still be able to watch both digital and analog broadcasts.

UHF Television Inc. will begin its switch to digital at the end of this summer, switching its KCCO rebroadcast, or channel 46 for analog television viewers, to digital as a test run. From there, the station plans to switch entirely to digital by the end of next summer. Viewers are directed to call 866-214-8214 with any questions.

For those who still have concerns about the digital television transition, or who would like to learn how to operate a digital converter box, Wigfield recommended attending a DTV transition clinic, such as the one being held Monday at the Willmar Public Library.

"Sometimes it helps to have face-to-face communication to learn this," Wigfield said.