My 5/18/08 Missoulian column
The analog-to-digital TV change – scheduled for February 2009 – has started to get some press recently: I’ve seen public service announcements on commercial TV, and on PBS’ “This Old House” Kevin and Norm talk about the change and what viewers need to do. And my Web site and blog get 10 to 20 hits a day from people searching for information on the changeover.
This all tells me people are curious about the switch, and the broadcasting industry and the Federal Communications Commission – which is mandating the change, the biggest in broadcasting technology since the advent of color TV – are trying to inform the public so as few people as possible will tune in to a blank screen next year. But with each passing month, the change has more potential to turn into a mess.
From the consumer angle, many of the converter boxes required to view digital TV on an analog set have been delayed in manufacturing, and consumers don’t typically know they need to buy certain boxes because not all TV stations and translators will go digital in February 2009. Also, while Wal-Mart, Sears, Best Buy, Target and other retailers have started stocking converter boxes, the Associated Press reports that some stores have been fined for continuing to sell nondigital TVs without labeling them as such – TVs that will be crippled without a converter box.
The FCC finally found a city willing to bite the bullet and test the digital change this fall (Washington Post) all the while being criticized for doing too little too late. The chairman of the commission has said there’s no going back to analog and no delaying the digital switch, no matter what happens.
This will leave some low-power Class A stations and rural translators still broadcasting in analog because of the high cost of changing over to digital. Those same low-power stations worry about losing their market when viewers can’t get continue to easily receive analog broadcasts through the converter boxes required to receive transmissions from from full-power stations.
First of all, if you haven’t heard of the changeover, here’s a synopsis. The big change is from analog TV signals to digital signals, which will – the FCC and television industry say – provide better reception, more channels and more capability for high definition programming. The old analog spectrum will be sold off and used for other services, such as cell phones and emergency radio systems. Some TV stations already broadcast in digital alongside analog, but next February, everything is supposed to be digital.
This change only affects you if you receive TV transmissions through an antenna on your roof or rabbit ears, and you have an older analog TV set. Look on your existing TV for something that says “digital tuner” or “ATSC.” If you do, you won’t need a converter box. If your TV says “NTSC” or “analog tuner,” or nothing at all, you’ll need a converter.
You can apply for free coupons worth $40 each to help buy a converter box, which run $40 to $80, at www.dtv2009.gov or by calling 1-888- DTV-2009.
(If you’re on satellite TV, you’re already digital and nothing will change for you. If you’re on cable, you’re probably digital, but check with your provider. Cable companies are required to carry both analog and digital signals until 2012.)
The bottom line for over-the-air TV viewers is not all analog transmissions will go away on Feb. 18, 2009. Full-power stations have to switch to digital, but low-power Class A stations don’t, and many can’t afford to. Montana is primarily a rural state and is served by many Class A stations and translators, which relay TV signals over mountains and across the prairie. (There are nearly 3,000 Class A stations and 4,400 translators in the United States).
An important detail that has slowly come to light is that only some converter boxes have what are called “analog pass-through circuits.” If you buy a converter box without pass-though capability, you’ll be plugging in and unplugging cables repeatedly to watch a a digital broadcast then a low-power transmission.
I’ve been trying to get a sample converter box – an Echostar TR-40, which has analog pass-through – from the manufacturer to test, but without any luck because of production delays. The latest reports are that they will be available in limited quantities in June. The Echostar converter received very good reviews at a consumer electronics show last winter, and looks to be the best choice. A list of TV converter boxes and models with analog pass-through capability is available at the Department of Commerce’s TV converter box program Web site. Also, Consumer Reports has reviewed a few of the boxes.
In addition, two issues are have come to light with converter boxes already installed by consumers. One is that there’s little wiggle room with digital TV. With analog, you could watch a Green Bay Packers game through the “snow” if you weren’t receiving a full signal. With digital, you either have a picture or, if you’re on the very edge of the reception area, you get nothing.
The other issue is digital signals are in the UHF band, and so if you stay with an analog TV with a converter box and use rabbit ears or an outside antenna, you’ll need to make sure your antenna is UHF compatible. If it’s only VHF, you won’t be able to receive a signal. (VHF antennas usually have long tines in an arrow pattern; UHF antennas are mostly cup or dish shaped.)
How do you find out more about the analog to digital change? Go to the Department of Commerce site for converter box coupons or, for the best homegrown information, go to Montana PBS.