Last week I wrote a story about the digital television transition that will take place Feb. 17, 2009. That's when broadcasters will stop carrying analog signals, or the over-the-air programming that TV-watchers generally receive with a rooftop antenna or "rabbit ears." Instead, broadcasters will send their shows in digital format, which is supposed to have much better picture and sound quality. Digital signals also use airwaves more efficiently, so some of the old analog airwaves can be reallocated for other purposes.
If you have an analog TV, you have three choices to continue to receive signals after the switch-off date. You can buy a converter box for each TV in your house, you can buy a new TV with a digital tuner, or you can subscribe to cable or satellite service.
Judging by the questions I've received since the article appeared, there still seems to be a fair amount of confusion about this transition. Hopefully the extra tid-bits of information below can help clear some of that up.
Q: How do I get a converter box and how does it work?
A: The converter box translates digital signals back into analog signals so they can be viewed on your analog TV set. It will look like a cable box. You will have to hook up a converter box to every TV in your house that's not hooked up to a cable or satellite service. So, if you have one TV hooked up to cable, but two other stand-alone TVs in your bedroom or kitchen, you'll need to have a converter box for each additional TV not hooked up to a cable box.
If your TV has a digital tuner--which all new TVs are required to have these days--you will not need a converter box to receive signals from your rooftop antenna.
Many retailers have said they will not carry the converter boxes in time for the holiday shopping season, but will start selling them in January. You can buy them in most stores that sell electronics, such as Best Buy or Wal-Mart.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department, is issuing coupons to help consumers pay for a converter box, which will cost anywhere from $50 to $70. You can request one by calling 1-800-DTV-2009. Each household can request two vouchers, which will be worth $40 each. Check out the agency's Web site for more information.
Q. The Federal Communications Commission recently passed a rule that requires cable operators to carry signals to analog subscribers. So why should I worry?
A: The rule applies only to customers subscribing to analog cable service, which is sometimes also referred to as basic cable. This type of cable service is not digital and still carries analog signals. The FCC ruled that analog-only cable subscribers will still get a picture for three years after the transition. If you aren't sure whether you subscribe to digital or analog cable service, call your service provider.
Q: How much more expensive are digital TVs?
A: There isn't much of a price difference anymore between analog TVs and digital TVs. Since last spring, all TVs manufactured must have a digital tuner. But many retail stores still have a lot of analog-only TVs in their inventory. They're required to label them clearly on the box or shelf. So when you're looking at TVs, make sure to find out if it has a digital tuner.
For a closer look at the technology behind digital TV, check out Rob Pegoraro's explanation.
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