On Feb. 17, the six television channels broadcast to Maui will switch over to broadcasting in digital format, but for about 95 percent of residences in Maui it won't mean a thing.
Mike Rosenberg, president and general manager at KITV, cites industry surveys in saying there are about 46,000 television households on Maui, but only about 2,300 are OTA - TV-speak for "over the air." Cable delivers signals to 85 percent of Maui households, and satellite dishes account for another 10 percent.
So most television users on Maui don't have to be concerned about the national TV changeover, and even the 2,300 OTA households may not need to do anything.
Island Airwaves operates a broadcast antenna farm above Ulupalakua Ranch
Island Airwaves photo
If they have newer sets with digital capabilities, they can rest easy. If not, they have a choice of buying a new set or buying an adaptor to allow an older set to receive digital shows.
The adaptors are simple to install, similar to hooking up a DVD player. They cost $40 and up, but a fund to provide coupons to cover most of the cost is still available.
However, for viewers depending on over-the-air broadcasts, something else is going to happen to your TV signal - and sooner than February. For almost all viewers, it will be unnoticeable, but astronomers at Science City will be rejoicing.
The TV broadcast antennas sharing the 10,000-foot summit with the Air Force and Institute for Astronomy observatories are to be moved to an antenna farm on a puu above Ulupalakua at 4,538 feet. The long-awaited move is scheduled for October, once final Federal Communications Com-mission permissions are in place.
"Moving down a mountain is never good," said Rosenberg, who is heading a hui of the six broadcasters splitting the cost of the move, about
$2 million. For broadcasters, the higher the antenna, the better the coverage.
But it will be very good for astronomical research and military surveillance of space.
The television transmissions interfere with ultrasensitive receivers at the Air Force Maui Optical Site and University of Hawaii IfA telescopes.
An astronomical telescope doesn't have a transparent lens that focuses light like binoculars. Instead, the photons of starlight (or space junklight or asteroidlight) that hit a mirror are bounced into an electronic collector. This is an array of up to 1.44 billion tiny receptors, called charge coupled devices (CCDs). When a single photon hits a single CCD, its location is transmitted to a computer that translates the hits into a usable picture.
IfA's Pan-STARRS receiver is the largest digital camera in existence, although only 22 inches by 22 inches. However, said Mike Maberry, assistant IfA director, that compares with the tiny dot of a digital camera that you may have in your cell phone. Those tiny dots typically contain 3 million pixels or more, so a 22-by-22 panel can hold an enormous number of receptors.
For decades, astronomers have complained about interference from broadcast towers at or near the summit. At times, they could see faint shadows of cartoon shows on their telescope viewing screens. As telescope detectors became more sensitive, the interference became more troublesome.
According to Maberry, the International Astronomical Union sets an acceptable maximum for electronic inference - sometimes called "radio smog" - of 2 microwatts per square meter, "summed over all frequencies."
The total interference today at Science City is 184,000 microwatts.
Maberry says the latest detectors cannot be run at full capacity because of the high level of radio interference.
There are other sources of interference atop Haleakala, such as police radio transmitters. However, those are less of a problem because their signals are not as powerful, are not directional and are somewhat shielded from Science City at the location a little lower, where a puu blocks the direct transmission toward the telescopes.
The same line-of-sight effect means that when the broadcast antennas are moved to a lower altitude, some people will no longer get a TV signal. The number is not known but it is thought to be small, mostly in Haiku.
"Some people will have a better broadcast signal, and some may not get us from our new location," said Rosenberg.
If they don't, then cable or dish remains an option.
"My advice," said Rosenberg, "is if you get us now and are in an area where you can see the top of Haleakala and cannot see Ulupalakua, you are possibly in danger of not getting us at all."
On the other hand, the Ulupalakua antenna farm, operated by Island Airwaves Inc., is upgrading its backup generators, which should reduce or eliminate blackouts due to bad weather atop Haleakala. Of the stations broadcasting from the summit, only KHON has a generator.
For people who don't use cable or dish and who don't want to junk their old analog TV set, there are still coupons available to subsidize purchase of a certified converter box.
The switchover from analog to digital broadcasting was one of the provisions in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, providing for an expansion of the spectrum of frequencies for "advanced television services" involving digital signals carrying more bits of information.
According to Bart Forbes, a spokesman for the Department of Commerce in Washington, viewers will benefit from better pictures and more channels, as well as, in time, more advanced telecommunication services.
The changeover was delayed when broadcasters were required to install new transmitters as well. But when the government auctioned the new digital frequencies, the sale raised $19.6 billion. Of that, $1.5 billion was set aside for coupons to assist viewers relying on broadcast signals to get converters.
There were 21 million coupons available, with 20,000 allocated to Hawaii. That should have been plenty, because there were only 21,540 OTA TV users in the whole state.
Figures for Maui County were not available. However, the coupons have been going slowly, despite a nationwide campaign to make the public aware of them. By midsummer, only 4,000 had been requested.
More information, as well as an online order form to request a coupon, is available at www.dtv2009.gov.
* Harry Eagar can be reached at email@example.com.