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Will Wilmington Weather The Storm?

Despite the fact that hurricane season has hit with a seemingly relentless barrage of storms in recent days, the real-world market test for the analog broadcast TV cutoff goes into effect today in Wilmington, N.C. — an area that has seen more than its fair share of hurricanes in past.

Certainly, the market trial is needed and welcome as an early barometer for another kind of storm that is likely to hit on Feb. 17, 2009 — a storm of consumer outrage.

“This early transition will provide valuable insight as we approach the historic nationwide transition in 2009,” stated Consumer Electronics Association president/CEO Gary Shapiro. “Together with our industry and government partners, we remain committed to ensuring that television viewers do not lose service because they were not aware of the transition or their options.”

A worthy effort, no doubt, but the location and timing of the trial seems a bit risky at this juncture.

As I recall from the few major storms I’ve experienced in my life, electricity is usually the first thing to go down, and maintaining a link to news and weather reports is as vital as drinking water. Certainly battery-operated or hand-crank radios can help in the regard, but I’ve found a portable television to offer more valuable — and often more up-to-date — local news in my area on weather emergencies and evacuation announcements. The problem for Wilmington residents, however, is the new digital television signals will not be receivable by battery-operated analog portable sets. Ouch!

I don’t know of any battery-operated converter boxes available at this time, and I would have to think the market for them would be very small. After all, tying a converter box to a portable TV defeats the purpose of having a tiny set — portability.

So where are all of the portable digital television sets to take advantage of the news and weather reports carried on these new digital stations and multicasts in emergency conditions? Other than a few rare exceptions, they don’t exist yet because a standard for portable television broadcasting is still being determined through negotiation, comprise and market tests. By the end of the year our friends at LG, Harris, Samsung and others promise to have a completed system ready for market and the first portable DTVs should come to market shortly thereafter.

I think the first finding from the Wilmington test should be that the portable DTV broadcast system needs to be in place by next February, and manufacturers must step up production to have products available in areas prone to weather emergencies quickly.

In the meantime, some of the folks in North Carolina with ample discretionary income will have access to cellphone DTV broadcasts for a fee. But it’s tough to watch TV and use the phone to communicate with loved ones and emergency services at the same time. Let’s just hope the folks in Wilmington can weather this TV transition storm and they’ve seen the last of the hurricanes for the year.