Now that the Wilmington, NC, digital TV transition test for over-the-air broadcast has been successfully completed, all should be smooth sailing for the full switch in February, right?

Perhaps not.

It seems things in Hunterdon County, NJ, are not going so well. According to a report by consumer advocacy group TeleTruth (www.teletruth.org), some over-the-air viewers in Hunterdon County are losing their New York and Philadelphia stations after installing DTV converter boxes. Twenty-nine residents have contacted TeleTruth about DTV problems, and presumably there are more.

TeleTruth has concluded that the "FCC’s Wilmington Test does not adequately address rural fringe areas" and that "whole communities throughout the US could have a very high percentage of households that will lose over-the-air free TV service." Well … Given TeleTruth’s tiny sample, that may overstate things. But they do have a point. Wilmington wasn’t a particularly strenuous test.

Steve Liebenow, headend manager for TiVo in the San Francisco Bay area, wrote to us in May, saying, "In my humble opinion, Wilmington is not just too small; it is also too flat to be called a real test, except for the outlying areas beyond the curvature of the earth."

Hunterdon County does have hills, the highest being more than 1,000 feet above sea level. See Liebenow’s full comments about problems with hills and tall things generally in the San Francisco Bay Area here.

And though Hunterdon County is regarded as a rural fringe of the New York Metropolitan Statistical Area, it’s hardly the boonies. Located about halfway between New York and Philadelphia, it is home to commuters to both metro areas. The county has a population of nearly 122,000 and a median household income of more than $93,000. Think "genteel country living" rather than hardscrabble dirt-farming.

Still, what’s likely to happen to people who truly live out in the sticks? If a high-income region located smack in between two major metropolitan areas can’t get DTV signals, those who live farther out may be completely out of luck. The cable angle The DTV transition also represents challenges for cable.

"Feb. 17 will be a scotch and Maalox night. I recommend a 25-year-old McCallum," said David Donovan, president, Association for Maximum Service Television in June. "On the other hand, if you don’t do this right, we will all be drinking Maalox."

The SCTE, American Cable Association, and the NCTA all have resources available to ease the transition.

The SCTE is presenting "DTV: Strategies for a Smooth Transition" as a series of live webcasts beginning Sept. 24. There will be six sessions, free to SCTE members. To register, click here.

The ACA is running some workshops on the upcoming transition in Washington State in October. Click here and here for more details.

The NCTA has numerous resources posted on its Web site at http://www.ncta.com/IssueBrief.aspx?contentId=2688.

– Ron Hendrickson

Read more news and analysis on Communications Technology‘s Web site at http://www.cable360.net/ct/news/.

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