Hawaii the Early Bird in Switch to Digital

Starting today, to accommodate the nesting habits of a bird, the 50th state will begin the switch from analog to digital TV signals.
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Hawaii switches from analog to digital TV Thursday -- a month before the other 49 states -- thanks to the nesting season of an endangered bird.

Beginning at noon (5 p.m. EST), people watching over-the-air television shows will have to use a digital decoder. Their familiar analog channels 2 through 13 will begin airing infomercials 24 hours a day that will instruct viewers on how to make the switch to the new digital channels.

U.S. government officials are keeping a close eye on what happens in Hawaii so they can prepare for what will happen when the rest of the country makes the switch. That is currently scheduled for Feb. 17.

Hawaiians are switching to digital a month early because of an endangered bird. The change is taking place now so the old analog transmission towers can be taken down before the nesting season of the

dark-rumped petrel

, a volcano-dwelling bird.

The dark-rumped petrel

The analog TV shutdown was mandated by Congress to free up space in the airwaves for other services. In addition, auctioning off those old analog frequencies has also been a big revenue boost for the federal government.

Government officials and broadcasters estimate that 20,000 households in Hawaii still get their TV signals over the air, meaning they'd have to buy new TVs with digital tuners or digital converter boxes for their old TVs. Or they could switch to costly cable or satellite services.

Teams of volunteers and contractors were making house calls Thursday to residents who were struggling to hook up the black converter box, which rests atop a TV like a small VCR. The boxes sell for $50 to $70.

The analog-to-digital switchover has already gotten early test runs in Wilmington N.C., and a number of small towns in Northern California, with some reports of people having problems receiving the digital signals.

The federal government has run out of money for $40 coupons to subsidize converter boxes. Those coupons are redeemable at retailers like

Best Buy

(BBY) - Get Report

,

RadioShack

(RSH)

,

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

,

Target

(TGT) - Get Report

and

Amazon.com

(AMZN) - Get Report

.

Ryan Himeda, supervisor at Best Buy, explains how a digital receiver works in Honolulu, Jan. 13.

President-elect Barack Obama's transition team has asked Congress to delay the shut-off, though the Federal Communications Commission chairman has said postponing could confuse consumers.

As many as 8 million U.S. households still rely on analog TV sets to watch over-the-air channels. "We're just going to hold our breaths and see what happens Thursday," said, the FCC's Hawaii digital TV project manager, Lyle Ishida.

Most likely affected will be the elderly and those who refuse to spend as much as $150-$200 per month for cable and satellite TV signals.

Bruce Bottorff, spokesman for AARP's Hawaii chapter, says "There is a broad concern that some older consumers might be vulnerable to sales pitches for new and expensive TV sets rather than for cheaper converter boxes."

At a Honolulu electronics store, customers have been snatching up the converter boxes. One brand that sold for $50 was sold out Tuesday, but about five dozen $60 boxes remained on the shelf.

"I can see how my parents and grandparents would be frustrated with it," said Ryan Himeda, a supervisor at the store, which also offers $100 home installation. "We try to steer customers on the right path.

Gary Krakow is TheStreet.com's senior technology correspondent. Copyright 2008 TheStreet.com Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. AP contributed to this report.