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Saying Goodbye To Analog TV

With only six weeks to the mandated deadline for conversion, will you be affected?

By Barry Myers

Like the transition to color television in the 1950s and the introduction of television itself in the 1930s, February 17, 2009 will mark another major milestone in the illustrious history of America’s favorite leisure activity.

On that date, television programming in the US will go fully digital and all analog signals will cease.

The story dates back to 1996 when the U.S. Congress made the controversial decision to give additional channels to the TV stations so that they could start digital broadcasts alongside their analog programming. Later, after many false starts, Congress mandated that February 17, 2009 would be the last day for full-power television stations to broadcast in analog.

What is Digital TV and why make the change?

Digital television (DTV) is a new type of broadcasting technology that transmits information as "data bits" (like a computer) to create a TV set's picture and sound. A digital broadcast can carry far more information than is possible under analog technology. The potential for increased capacity has been compared to the upgrade from cassette tapes to compact discs.

In most instances, digital programming allows TV stations to offer greatly improved picture and sound quality. Digital is also much more efficient than analog. Rather than being limited to providing one analog program, a broadcaster can choose between offering simultaneous HD (high definition) and SD (standard definition) programming through a process called “multicasting.”

Another important benefit of the transition is that it will free up parts of the broadcast spectrum for public safety communications (police, fire departments, and rescue). Remember how badly the current system was exposed on 9/11?

Finally, a chunk of the old analog spectrum can now be auctioned off to companies that will provide consumers with more advanced services like wireless broadband. All told, the auction of the former analog TV spectrum is expected to generate between $10 billion and $15 billion.

Is your TV ready for the switch?

More than likely, the answer is yes. If all the TVs in your home receive programming via cable or satellite service, you should be ready to go. But set-top boxes come in many different flavors, so be sure to check with your service provider to make sure yours is up-to-date and capable of receiving digital signals. However if you have any TVs that receive free, over-the-air programming via a rooftop antenna or “rabbit ears” on the top of your TV, you have some work to do.

Approximately 30 million households that have TVs that rely solely on over-the-air broadcasts and 40 million secondary TVs in homes that also have cable and satellite services will be affected.

How do you find out if your TV service is likely to be affected? First, you need to determine if your TV has an analog or digital tuner. If it has a digital tuner, your TV shouldn’t be affected by the transition. As long as a DTV signal is available and your TV has a digital tuner, your existing antenna should still work after the transition is complete.

If your set is over 10 years old, is an LCD TV that is smaller than18 inches, or was sold to you as “HD-ready”, then it is almost certainly an analog set. If you bought a projection, big-screen TV between 1998 and 2004, it may have a digital tuner but more likely it will be analog-only.

If your TV was bought after 2004, then most likely it has a digital tuner. As of March 1, 2007, all new TVs were required to include digital tuners. After that date, manufacturers were prohibited from shipping any device containing an analog tuner unless it also contained a digital tuner. However, retailers were allowed to continue to sell analog-only TVs from existing inventory, resulting in some analog TVs continuing to reach mostly unsuspecting consumers.

If your TV says any of the following on the front of your TV, then it is digital ready:

  1. Integrated Digital Tuner
  2. Digital Receiver
  3. ATSC
  4. DTV
  5. HDTV
If you’re still not sure, consult the owner’s manual, look for your TV specs on the manufacturer’s web site, or contact the manufacturer directly and simply ask if your TV is digital ready.

What do you need to do if your TV is not digital ready?

If you have determined that your TV is not ready for the switchover, you have three choices:

  1. Buy a digital-to-analog converter box and connect it to your analog TV. (See below for information on how to get your $40 coupons from the government.)
  2. Buy a TV with a built-in digital tuner. Keep in mind that you do not need a high definition TV to watch digital broadcast television, just a digital tuner.
  3. Subscribe to a paid TV service – usually cable or satellite but one of the new IPTV (internet protocol TV) services from the telecom companies will work too.
It’s important to understand that the change from analog to digital transmission is not a change from analog to high definition. The change is to digital broadcasting, which can also include high definition.

Obtaining a converter box

Digital-to-analog converter boxes are available online and in stores around the country. You can search the Internet to find a vendor near you. Each converter box costs between $40 and $70.

To help you pay for the boxes, the Government is offering two $40 coupons or vouchers per household. For more information on how to receive the coupons, visit www.DTV2009.gov. You can even apply for a coupon right on the site. You can also call 1-888-388-2009 (voice) or 1-877-530-2634 (TTY). As with digital tuner TVs, you should not need a new antenna if you get good quality reception on analog channels 2-51 with your existing antenna. (Note that it is illegal to sell the coupons, but you can give them to a family member or friend.)

Finally, make sure you buy a converter box that has been certified. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is in charge of the certification process. Currently, several companies have been certified including, Digital Stream, Zenith, Magnavox, and Philco. Other companies including LG, Samsung, RCA, Broadcom and Echostar are in the process of seeking certification.

Connecting your converter box should be easy. The box will come with instructions of course but, if you just can’t wait, you can read some generic instructions from the Consumer Electronics Association or even watch a video online.

A few additional issues

The analog VCR, DVD player or DVR (TiVo) you currently use will continue to work with your analog TV, but they will not be able to receive over-the-air programming without the converter box. For this, you will need to attach the converter to your VCR, TiVo, DVD player, etc. instead of hooking it directly to your TV.

Unfortunately, it appears that battery-powered, portable TVs are a casualty of the transition. As you’d imagine, there’s no converter box for these sets, but there are some great digital-tuner portables on the market.

If you really want to dig into the details of the DTV transition, there are dozens of great resources with lots of information online. Start with the official government site at www.dtv.org or just enter “DTV transition” into Google and go from there.

Barry Myers has been helping consumer technology brands communicate with consumers for over 12 years. Most recently he was a co-founder of DigitalLife, the country’s biggest consumer-facing technology conference and exposition. He’s currently hard at a work on his own niche social network. Barry lives in Manhattan with his wife, two-year old son, and twin cats Al and G.

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