"It will be messy," said Robert McDowell, a member of the Federal Communications Commission. "We are estimating three million households or so will be left behind." Government figures were more pessimistic than industry's about the number of unprepared viewers.
The Federal Communications Commission says about 11 percent of U.S. households rely solely on over-the-air TV signals; most of us use cable, satellite, fiber-optics or other services to get TV programs. The National Association of Broadcasters says the number of people affected by the transition is closer to a third of all Americans, as people may have several sets connected to cable service, but another upstairs or in the kitchen that still relies on old-fashioned rabbit ears.
On the other hand, there are a growing number of people, like Ben and Katie Hallen of Washington, D.C., who have moved beyond the ups and downs of conventional broadcasting.
"We watch our TV over the Internet," said Ben Hallen, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith Business School. "The transition is happening, but it really doesn't affect us."
He and his wife, who live in Washington, D.C., found, a couple of years ago, that they were streaming programs on their laptops, getting movies from Netflix or Amazon, and using a Roku digital video player to transfer the streamed signal to their TV set.
"We're watching what we want to watch," he said. "For the weather, we just go online. For news, we read a lot of newspapers."
But the Hallens are at the other end of the country -- and the broadcasting spectrum -- from Carl Huffman.
He finally got help from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights to cut through the red tape -- and was planning, in a few hours, to pick up a converter box and a new digital antenna.
"My socializing is from my TV," Huffman said. "There is no option. I have to do this."