My 1/6/08 Missoulian column
Analog to Digital TV Changeover
There’s a New Year’s development that concerns a good number of TV viewers in Montana: As of Jan. 1, you can apply online for a $40 coupon from the Federal Communications Commission to help offset the cost of the coming analog-to-digital TV changeover. That’s when all over-the-air TV stations must complete their transition from the old broadcast technology – analog – to the new digital format.
In mostly rural states such as Montana, many people still receive their TV signal over the air with an antenna; nationwide, there are about 70 million analog TV sets still in use. When the changeover occurs in February, 2009, (not in 2008; not next month!) you’ll need a converter box to change the new digital signal back to analog in order to view it. The full transition – some TV stations already broadcast in digital alongside an analog signal – is more than a year out, but we all know how time flies, even when you’re not watching the Superbowl, David Letterman or Jay Leno.
The result of the federally mandated change will be better picture quality and more channels, because digital signals contain more information and use a smaller piece of the overall broadcast spectrum. The leftover spectrum will be used for additional TV channels and other services, such as cell phones and wireless Internet.
To visualize the difference between analog and digital, think of a mountain ridge as seen from the valley floor. Analog is like an undulating ridgeline, smoothly rising and falling, the high parts being high frequency and the low being low frequency. Now, imagine that same ridgeline, not smooth but made up of square steps all the same width. That’s digital – the signal is broken up into steps measured by the digits one and zero. More information can be transmitted in a stepped string of ones and zeros than a smooth ridge line.
The converter box coupons are being offered by the FCC with profits from selling the soon-to-be-available extra bandwidth. The $40 coupon will help you buy a converter box, which will convert the digital signal back to analog for your old TV. The boxes are supposed to be available in local stores and by mail around March. Each household can currently apply for two coupons on the Web site listed at the end of this column.
So, how old is an old analog TV? The FCC ruled that as of March 1, 2007, all new TVs sold must include digital tuners. If you bought a TV before that, especially an inexpensive one, it could be analog. The best way to figure it out is to check the labels on your TV; you’re looking for the word “digital,” as in “digital tuner,” “digital receiver” or “DTV.” Any of these phrases indicate you’re TV can handle the new broadcasts. But if you find the phrase “digital ready,” you might not be. Check the owner’s manual, the manufacturer’s Web site, the store where you bought the TV or the FCC Web site listed below.
If you don’t find the word digital, or if you find “NTSC,” you’ll need a converter box. And if you use an antenna or rabbit ears to get local stations, chances are you’re still on an analog signal and will need a converter box, too. Just remember: Don’t toss the antenna or rabbit ears – you’ll need them. The over-the-air digital signal will be picked up by the antenna, then converted to analog by the box and passed along to your TV.
The analog-to-digital changeover doesn’t mean everyone will suddenly be receiving high-definition (HD) TV. HDTV is a digital signal and requires a digital television, but not all digital transmissions are or will be high definition. Some stations broadcast in HDTV now, along with standard-definition digital: STV. If you have a non-HDTV set, you’re getting standard-definition digital TV, not HDTV.
Stations in Montana already broadcasting in digital – along with analog broadcasts – are: Billings – KTVQ, KULR; Bozeman – KBZK, KUSM; Butte – KXLF; Great Falls – KFBB, KRTV; Helena – KMTF; Missoula – KECI, KPAX, KTMF, KUFM.
There is some good news: Digital television sets are “backward compatible,” meaning existing analog equipment such as VCRs, camcorders, video games, etc., will work on newer digital TVs. So there’s no need to buy new toys for the analog-to-digital changeover.
To complicate things, if your older TV is connected to a satellite or cable service, you should to talk with your provider; the analog-to-digital changeover applies only to over-the-air broadcasts.
Don’t be caught in the dark – there’s a lot more information on the FCC’s Web site on the countdown to the digital transition DTV.gov website. And to apply for the $40 coupon for a digital converter box, go to the DTV Converter Box Program website
if you want to bite the bullet and get a new digital TV and get rid of your old analog set, recycle the old set. There are lots of places in Missoula and Western Montana to recycle. But February 17, 2009 is the absolute deadline for the broadcast stations to complete their analog to digital changeover. It won’t be pushed back.
1/4/08 Update: LG Electronics has announced that they have a Zenith-branded analog to digital converter box certified by the FCC that will be ready for sale in Feburary for around $69.95, a bit more than the $40 coupons. They will not handle HD, only STV. Product announcement on Engadget