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Exchange stores race to have decoders ready for AFN’s switch to HD

Airman Lauren Lagudi, a radio DJ on American Forces Network Aviano, Defense Media Activity, edits a project in the AFN studio. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. Robert Valenca)

New decoder boxes needed by many subscribers to continue watching the American Forces Network as it transitions to high-definition TV hadn’t reached shelves at some overseas bases Tuesday, but officials said most viewers should have time to make the switch without interruption.

About 20,000 of the 70,000 decoder boxes in use cannot receive the new digital signal, which was slated to begin broadcasting in the Pacific region overnight Tuesday.

The Atlantic and Indian Ocean regions are to follow on Dec. 5, with Europe, the Americas, Southwest Asia and Africa to transition on Dec. 12.

“In most cases, decoders will be available for customers several days in advance” of the switch to high definition, said Jason Moore, chief of telecommunications outside the continental U.S. for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service.

“Consistent with those dates, decoder availability from the Exchange will be staggered, with the decoders available first in (the Pacific) and then Europe,” Moore said in an email to Stars and Stripes.

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But employees at two overseas Exchange stores said the new decoders were not on store shelves yet. At the Exchange at Yokota Air Base in Japan on Monday, a customer service representative said the store still hadn’t received the new decoders, suggesting customers could purchase a new decoder online and wait about a month to receive them.

At the Ramstein Air Base Exchange store, customers are being told they can preregister for a new decoder online at shopmyexchange.com. Power Zone employees said Tuesday that the devices should arrive by mid-December but did not have an exact date.

As to why Exchange employees in Japan and Germany said otherwise, Moore had an explanation: AAFES sent out an updated message internally to stores in the Pacific on Monday, “so word may just now be getting out.”

“The decoder deliveries are staggered to match AFN’s transition schedule and because the new units will not work pre-transition,” Moore added.

AFN decoders, he said, have been allocated and distributed to the Pacific in line with the AFN signal transition. Japan stores already have or are receiving the decoders now, Moore said Tuesday, and South Korea stores will receive the decoders on Wednesday. AAFES expects decoders to be available in Europe stores by Dec. 12, Moore added.

AFN officials said earlier this year that most subscribers use the Cisco D9865, which with some setting changes is compatible with HD programming. Older decoders must be replaced, or “you will not get anything” once the signal is upgraded, Col. Dave Honchul, of American Forces Radio and Television Service — AFN’s parent — said earlier this year.

For military and civilian households off base, a decoder is needed to receive and unscramble the AFN signal, which is relayed via satellite from the AFN Broadcast Center in California. The signal is encoded to prevent piracy.

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Honchul said this week that AFN is receiving authentication requests from the new decoder in Asia, “which tells me decoders are hitting the streets.”

“We do not anticipate any gaps in availability of the new decoder,” he said. “While AFN does not control supply channels, we have partnered closely with AAFES throughout this process to ensure the new boxes will be available in a timely manner.”

The conversion to all-digital means improved picture and sound quality for most AFN viewers worldwide.

The signal is decoded and piped via cable to on-base locations. HD won’t be available in all areas, as some installations don’t have the cable infrastructure needed to distribute the HD signal.

AAFES is selling a new digital decoder with many new features, such as a digital video recorder for recording AFN shows, to support AFN’s transition to HD. Though the AFN7500HD is a significant upgrade in capability, according to AAFES, the unit will be $229, more than $100 less than the Cisco. The new decoders will also be available for rent at $11 a month, about $7 a month cheaper than the older model.

“The race to get the decoders to the viewers has indeed been a tight one but successful,” Moore said. “This has been a very complex project with many moving pieces, but we’re in the home stretch.”

Viewers won’t have to adjust their satellite dishes because of the transition to HD. Minor changes, however, will need to be made to decoder settings. A step-by-step instruction guide for both the Cisco and the new model will be available at www.myafn.net/afnhd.

All AFN satellite radio and television services in a transitioning region will be off the air for about two hours while the equipment is reconfigured, AFN officials said. The switch will be made during overnight hours in each region.

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© 2017 the Stars and Stripes

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