The digital conversion will leave some Coloradans in the dark

Michael Tietze lives way off the beaten path. His homestead is "four and a half miles up the road to Mount Evans from Idaho Springs," he says — well beyond the point where he could hook up to cable television. Not that he minds. He isn't interested in having access to 500 channels of programming. He's perfectly satisfied with the Denver stations whose signals he can capture for free with the use of his twelve-foot outdoor antenna. Granted, Channel 2 doesn't come in clearly — "I get sound and a bad picture," he notes — but channels 4, 6, 7 and 9 look fine "depending on the weather."

Tietze has enjoyed this mix for two decades, and he'd like it to continue. But in all likelihood, he'll soon be out of luck because of the impending transition from analog to digital broadcasting. On February 17, or a later date if Congress votes for a delay recommended by President Barack Obama's staff, his set will go dark — and unless he pays what he sees as a hefty monthly payment to a satellite provider, it'll stay that way.

Why? According to Channel 9 anchor Mark Koebrich, who's been serving as the face of DTV for his station, Tietze lives in "the blackout footprint" — an area that's long received analog signals but probably won't get enough of the digital kind to make his television operate properly. This dead zone is a byproduct of a complex court and public-relations battle over the construction of a digital-TV tower on Lookout Mountain that lasted for the better part of a decade.

Figuring out that the digital revolution won't include him took plenty of detective work on Tietze's part. Amid last year's wave of DTV promos, which suggested that making the switch to digital would be as easy as buying a converter box subsidized by the government (the program is currently in limbo due to depleted funds), he called Koebrich, who touted an Echostar TR-40 as the top product on the market. Tietze purchased one, but after installing it, he couldn't get the box to register any digital signals. Confused, he phoned staffers at Radio Shacks in Bergen Park and Golden, who told him that none of their customers living nearby had been able to pick up anything on the converter boxes they'd purchased, either.

From there, Tietze contacted an engineer at Channel 4 — he doesn't recall his name — who confirmed that his mountain abode was in a digitally challenged location. Koebrich said the same thing during a second call. "I hadn't told him where I lived before," Tietze allows, "and when he heard, he said, 'Oh, you'll never get a signal. You're in the Lake Cedar area.'"

Koebrich, who doesn't recall specifically speaking to Tietze but remembers many similar conversations with viewers, was referring to the Lake Cedar Group, a consortium formed by channels 4, 6, 7, 9 and 20 to promote the construction of the digital tower. The Federal Communications Commission had set a November 1, 1999, deadline for stations in the top thirty U.S. markets, including Denver, to be DTV-ready. But during the years leading up to that date, Lookout Mountain residents delayed implementation because of concerns about adding a tower to a nearby antenna farm that most, though not all, radio and TV stations serving Denver had used for decades. While the objections of some residents were aesthetic in nature, other Lookout Mountain dwellers felt the pre-existing antennas were putting their health at risk, and they feared the new structure would make the situation worse.

Whether folks in the area are truly in danger is a matter of debate. Most experts agree that non-ionizing radiation from radio frequencies (known as RF) can be harmful at intensities high enough to heat the human body. But during the '90s, an increasing number of researchers contended that non-ionizing radiation fuels cancers at lower levels, too. Establishing indisputable evidence of a cause-and-effect relationship proved difficult, however. An example: Although a February 1999 Colorado Department of Health study identified two "block groups" near the antenna farm with elevated cancer rates, it failed to verify a direct link to RF exposure.

Nevertheless, neighborhood groups such as Canyon Area Residents for the Environment (CARE) made health worries the centerpiece of their arguments at a 1999 hearing before Jefferson County commissioners, whose approval was needed before tower construction could get under way. They highlighted Ralston Elementary, a school that stood directly in the path of the signals, portraying students there as radiation guinea pigs.

The commissioners ultimately turned down the proposal over questions about the tower's fall radius — the possibility that it would land on homes if it failed. But Don Perez, the general manager of Lake Cedar Group, acknowledges that health questions had a political impact, forcing stations to address them in their next proposal. As he puts it, "We had to make some compromises" — including one involving signal direction.

The analog antennas on Lookout Mountain are omni-directional, sending signals out over 360 degrees. But the new plan directed the signal away from Ralston. Perez calls the adjustment, due west of the tower, "a notch." The adjustment was akin to replacing a lawn sprinkler that sprays in a complete circle with one that excludes a slice of the pie.

This modification didn't appease CARE, which opposed the new pitch, too. But the "notch" remained and became part of the final package, thanks to a 2006 bill co-sponsored by senators Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar that made protests null and void when signed into law by then-president George W. Bush. And now that digital has been switched on — to extend the sprinkler comparison — part of the yard isn't being watered anymore.

Even without this alteration, getting a good digital signal in mountainous or outlying locations would have been difficult. A weak analog signal will result in fuzzy reception of the sort Tietze describes in the case of Channel 2. But with digital, users on the fringes of the broadcast area will either get a good picture or one that freezes in place or doesn't come in at all. Such troubles could be widespread. An FCC map estimating digital's reach shows that significant portions of Larimer, Morgan, Grand, Park, Summit, Weld and El Paso counties that receive analog signals from Denver will probably be out of digital range.

At this point, there's no way to tell how many households will be affected. After all, stations like 7 and 9 aren't broadcasting their digital signals at full power and won't do so until the changeover. Perez is optimistic that worst-case scenarios won't come to pass. "Many folks who today may not be getting the service they expect will get it in February," he says. And Channel 4 director of operations David Layne thinks most people who receive his station's signal now will get the digital one as well.

Most, but not all — and thus far, local stations have devoted little time in their DTV stories or promotions to have-nots. Among the quasi-exceptions was a January 14 Koebrich story about reception troubles. After portraying better antennas as the solution to most difficulties, Koebrich said, "For some viewers, the new signal will be unavailable because of topography or terrain. And a small number of you may not get the signal at all simply because of how our digital pattern has been configured on the west side."

That's not even close to the whole story — but at least Koebrich acknowledges that digital's superior picture quality comes with some drawbacks. The analog-for-digital swap "wasn't our idea," he emphasizes. "It was the government's idea, and we're just trying to implement it. We don't know how many people will be left out in the cold, and of course, that's a big negative for us. We don't want anybody to not be able to get television."

For his part, Tietze isn't upset at Koebrich, who he says was very polite to him. But he does admit to being aggravated by all the promos touting the wonders of DTV, especially since this supposed technological advance will require him to either pay a monthly fee for something he used to get for nothing or give up television cold turkey. "Instead of seeing all these smiley faces," he says, "I wish just once they'd say, 'This is who's being screwed.'"