Are you ready for the DTV transition?


Chances are when most of the remaining analog cellular phone systems were turned off Feb. 18, you didn’t lose the use of your more modern wireless phone, even if some people were surprised to find their alarm systems and older cellular-based car systems were affected. But what will happen on Feb. 17, 2009, when analog TV too goes the way of the dinosaurs? Will you still be able to watch your local news and reruns of “CSI,” or will your TV simply go black?

If you don’t know the answer to that question now, you should by the time you finish reading this, or you’ll at least know how to get that answer.

So, what is this Feb. 18, 2009, deadline all about?

On that date, federal law requires that all full-power television broadcast stations stop broadcasting in analog format and broadcast only in digital format. The deadline has already been extended to allow more time for broadcasters to update their equipment, and now consumers are moving toward their own deadline to update their television equipment to match.

The idea of the government is primarily to free up existing analog broadcast frequencies for public safety uses, such as fire, police and rescue operations, as well as some possible consumer uses. The bonus is that moving to digital technology enables broadcasters to provide a better viewing experience to most of their viewers, with improved picture and audio quality, as well as multi-cast broadcast options such as local and language variants.

It sounds like a win-win thing, and it likely is overall, but if you’re using an older television and only receiving free, over-the-air broadcast signals, there will be some work — and possibly some expense — involved on your part to ensure that you can still watch television come this time next year.

If you are only receiving over-the-air television and you haven’t upgraded your televisions since March 1, 2007, or later — or better yet, May 25, 2007, or later, you’re the most at affected by the transition. And the first thing you need to do is check your television’s manual or manufacturer information to see if it includes the one vital part to ensure you can watch broadcast TV after Feb. 17, 2009: a digital tuner.

Older sets will have only an analog tuner, which can’t decode the new digital signals coming from local television stations.

If you purchased an LCD or plasma television during the time before May of 2007 and are only watching over-the-air TV, you’re still going to need to do this check. Even though both of the new television display technologies were designed to make use of digital signals, not all of them included a digital tuner inside.

Such is the case with my inexpensive LCD television, purchased in late 2006. If you have one, it’s likely you purchased such a set early in their availability or that you got a comparative bargain on it as manufacturers revved up for the March 1, 2007, deadline to stop shipping televisions that only included an analog tuner. After that date, all TVs shipped to retailers were required to include a digital tuner and many included both types.

As of May 25, 2007, retailers were required to specifically inform consumers if the set they were purchasing did not include a digital tuner. Televisions with only analog tuners that were sold after that date would have come marked with the following warning:

“This television receiver has only an analog broadcast tuner and will require a converter box after February 17, 2009, to receive over-the-air broadcasts with an antenna because of the Nation’s transition to digital broadcasting. Analog-only TVs should continue to work as before with cable and satellite TV services, gaming consoles, VCRs, DVD players, and similar products. For more information, call the Federal Communications Commission at 1-888-225-5322 (TTY: 1-888-835-5322) or visit the Commission’s digital television website at: www.dtv.gov.”

Any that weren’t marked that way and were purchased after May 25, 2007, should include a digital tuner, which means you’re set for the digital TV age if you have one.

So, how do you know if your TV is ready? Labels or markings may have contained the words “Integrated Digital Tuner” or “Digital Tuner Built-In,” with “Receiver” possibly substituted for “Tuner,” and “DTV,” “ATSC,” or “HDTV” (high definition television) substituted for “Digital.”

According to the Federal Communications Commission, if your television equipment contains any of these labels or markings, you should be able to view digital over-the-air programming without the need for a digital-to-analog converter box.

TVs labeled as “Digital Monitor” or “HDTV Monitor,” or as “Digital Ready” or “HDTV Ready,” may not necessarily include a digital tuner, so you may still need to do some work to retain your free TV after next February.

If your TV is labeled as “analog” or “NTSC,” but is not labeled as containing a digital tuner, it contains an analog tuner only, and you’re going to want to follow along to keep the free TV fountain flowing.

It’s all in the box

So what if your TV, or at least one of them, has only an analog tuner?

Don’t panic or run out to buy a new set right away.

“The consumer electronics industry would have everyone believe that they must run out and spend thousands of dollars on HD equipment because their current equipment (tube-type TVs) supposedly will all turn into pumpkins after February 2009,” local electronics expert Dennis Hastings of Ocean View’s Hastings Electronics wrote to inform Coastal Point readers recently.

“Not true,” he continued. “This is only the case if you happen to be using an antenna (either indoor or outdoor), and very few people in this area are using an antenna because there are no TV stations in the Delmarva area (except for 16 and 47, which are UHF stations).

“Most everyone is either using a cable box receiver or a satellite receiver, which is what will be needed after February 2009 in order to continue to receive signals and be able to view HD programming on their older sets,” Hastings noted.

So what happens if you are using an antenna? Then, what you actually need is a digital converter box. The good news that, as an adjunct to or as part of your rooftop antenna system or the rabbit ears on or next to your TV, a simple digital converter box with your older TV will solve the problem of receiving local broadcast stations after Feb. 17, 2009.

The better news is that the government is subsidizing the purchase of up to two digital converter boxes for each household in the U.S., with coupons worth $40 each, because the new digital airwaves are still supposed to be free to the people.

The publicizing of this program — as well as the entire digital TV conversion — has been strongly criticized by many, and pointed efforts are under way now to increase awareness among the general public, and particularly seniors, about what they can expect and what they need to do.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) even visited seniors in Lewes last week to talk to them about the digital TV transition — one of several stops in each of the state’s counties to talk about it.

“It is my hope that no one will experience an interruption in TV service when the DTV transition happens on Feb. 17 of next year,” Carper said. “That’s why I’m here today, to help get the word out to as many people as possible.

“That’s also why have cosponsored legislation that is designed to help senior citizens with the DTV transition, and I am working to see that it becomes law as soon as possible. My goal is to ensure that the DTV transition go as smoothly as possible,” Carper added.

As Carper explained, the government-provided coupons will allow consumers who need digital converter boxes to cover most of the cost. Most program-approved boxes will run around $50 to $70. Just remember that the basics, and the lower price, will still get the job done, and you will have to foot the bill for anything over $40.

Those who own TVs without a digital tuner and who want to take advantage of the coupon program can visit the Web site at www.dtv2009.gov to request their two coupons per household.

Just remember that a limited number of the coupons were authorized. They’re also equipped with a 90-day expiration period, so you shouldn’t request one too much earlier than you think you’ll buy a converter box, with boxes only now starting to really come into stock at most retailers. So, if you don’t need one, don’t request it, and don’t waste them by asking for one many months ahead of when you expect to make a purchase. Easy enough.

But there are two other options that owners of TVs without digital tuners should examine: upgrading their TVs or moving to satellite TV or cable. Either of those moves will solve the problem without the need for a converter box, if more expensively.

Hastings said he’s skeptical of the sales pitches many consumers will get to replace their aging sets.

“Personally, I have no problem with the picture quality on the old (CRT or tube-type) TVs, and see no reason to spend needlessly on new equipment,” he said. “Sales people will try to ‘wow’ you with their outstanding picture quality, and they may be a tad better - but they’re not thousands of dollars better.

“Our advice is to stick with what you have until ‘the wheels fall off’ and, by then, the prices will have come down. Then buy a high-definition set,” Hastings added. “At that time, our recommendation will be to not buy product made in China, because of the high failure rate and lack of parts availability.”

If you were already looking to replace an older set in the near future, the best news of all is that every new TV you might buy from retailers these days will come ready for the digital TV transition.

Cable, satellite users already set

So, suppose you already have cable television or subscribe with a satellite provider — what do you have to do?

As Hastings indicated, the answer is nothing. Yup. Not a thing.

“If you already have cable or satellite service, or if you have cable service through a phone company, then the DTV transition won’t affect you,” Carper said. “And, if you already own a new digital TV, the transition won’t affect you. So, if you already have cable, satellite, or a digital TV, you won’t need to buy a converter box; you won’t need to do anything.”

Cable television and satellite providers, in fact, already provide their customers with decoder boxes for processed digital signals that can be viewed with an analog tuner. If you have either service, you’re likely already watching digital television, even if you don’t know it.

The difference between the digital and analog signal is only obvious to many when display technology like LCD and plasma comes into play. There, your HDTV monitor — even without a digital tuner — and your cheap LCD television can shine, with many more levels resolution and clearer sound. And it’s even better when watching programs recorded and broadcast in true high-definition on sets designed to display HDTV. But a digital signal even on your analog television is still likely to be an improvement.

Beautiful or blank —it’s up to broadcasters now

The one footnote here is going to be a familiar one to those who don’t get their local channels via cable television: reception and licensing.

If you are a satellite subscriber, this a familiar issue, because you’re subscribing to a basic cable package, too, just to get your local channels, or you’ve got a big antenna on your roof, or you’re putting up with lousy reception or maybe just going without local channels entirely.

The good news — kind of — is that if your problem is fuzzy reception via a rooftop antenna or rabbit ears, it will be a thing of the past with digital broadcasts. You’ll either get the signal or you won’t. It will be of good quality or you’ll see black where your local news used to be. But you won’t know for sure until the analog signals are dropped by each station for their digital counterparts.

This may seem like an argument for subscribing to cable for at least a basic package, but in my mind it’s equally an argument for going without. Our local broadcast stations will either broadcast a strong enough digital signal to reach all their potential viewers or they’ll lose eyeballs on their programming. I’m hoping they’re thinking ahead it’s the former.

For those with satellite service and poor antenna reception who don’t want to shell out for a basic cable package — the only way to see local programming other than over-the-air — even seeing network programming gets complicated, thanks to some other government rules.

In this area, most of our local stations (excepting NBC and Fox affiliates) are just far enough away to put us at the edge of both their broadcast range and the government-dictated range in which viewers are not allowed to receive so-called “distant” networks from satellite providers without a waiver from the local station. I have yet to hear of a single case of such waivers being granted in this area, even though most receive sub-par — if not entirely unwatchable — signals.

As a result, many local satellite subscribers are also subscribing to a basic cable package, putting up with bad or no over-the-air reception, or just going without one or more of the major broadcast networks and the accompanying local programming. So, if you’re attached to “CSI” or “Lost” and are counting on over-the-air signals to watch them, the cut-off date for analog broadcasts may be particularly telling for you.

This is the one area where those with digital-ready TVs will still have to be watchful as the next 12 months tick down, because even if your TV is ready to plug into your existing over-the-air antenna, it could be we’ll find our local signals lacking. Your only choices then will be cable or finding something else to watch. Anybody for a good book?