Digital television transition date looms

Michael Tortorich
A $40 coupon toward the purchase of a digital converter has been offered to defray the cost, but the program recently ran out of funding.

Television will be in for a change come Feb. 17 as all broadcasters in the United States will switch to digital, but it may not happen without any snags.

Congress mandated that all broadcasters switch to digital. This move could leave viewers without access to free over-the-air signals. Viewers with a rabbit-ear antenna will no longer be able to receive a signal on an analog television after the transition date.

Some have called for Congress to delay the switch because of flaws in the subsidy progam to cut costs of necessary converters. The Consumers Union has called for Congress to delay the transition since the waiting list includes thousands that have requested the $40 coupon toward the cost of converter box.

Digital converters cost between $40 and $90.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration ran out of funding on Jan. 5 for the coupon program.

“Millions of consumers could now be forced to spend their own money to navigate this federally-mandated transition,” the Consumers Union wrote in its Jan. 7 letter. “This economic climate is not the right time to ask consumers to dig deeper into their own pockets to pay for the miscalculation by the federal government.

Nearly 7 percent of television households are not ready for the digital transition, according to The Nielsen Company.

Why change?

The reason behind the decision is based on the benefits digital television brings. One is that changing to all-digital broadcasting will free up frequencies for public safety communications used by police, fire and emergency responders. Plus, some of the frequencies can be used for advanced commercial wireless service for broadband consumers.

“The digital transition is not just about access to entertainment,” said Toby Dubois, EATEL’s Manager of Products and Development. “It’s also about access to hurricane or other natural or national disaster alerts and updates and life-saving public service announcements.”

Digital television also enables broadcasters to offer improved picture and sound quality.

In order to continue receiving television service after Feb. 17, viewers must:

• Subscribe to a cable or satellite service (if currently subscribed, the transition should not affect service)

• Get a new digital-ready television

• Get a digital converter box

Will it work?

A new television is not needed, as long as it is a standard definition television with a built-in digital tuner or a digital converter box.

To determine if a television has a built-in digital tuner, consult the owner’s manual or look for labels such as “Integrated Digital Tuner,” “Digital Tuner Built-In,” “Digital Receiver,” “Digital Tuner,” “DTV,” “ATSC,” or “HDTV.”

A high-definition television is not required for the digital transition. Also, analog televisions connected to a cable or satellite should continue to work, as well as all VCRs, DVD players, camcorders and video games, even if they are only analog-capable. The equipment may not necessarily provide digital-quality picture and sound.

“There is much confusion among consumers about the difference between digital and high definition,” Dubois said.

Digital television and high-definition television are often used interchangeably, but are not the same. The DTV transition is a transition from analog broadcasting to digital broadcasting. It is not a transition from analog broadcasting to HD broadcasting. Digital broadcasting allows for high definition broadcasts, but consumers interested in watching HD programming on cable will have to subscribe to an HD package on an HD set in order to receive true HD-quality picture and sound.

Additional information on the Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program can be found at www.dtv2009.gov, or by calling 1-888-388-2009 or 1-877-530-2634.