On June 12, 2009, all television broadcast stations in the US were required to stop
transmitting their traditional analog signals and switch entirely to digital television. Wow, that
sounds ominous, doesn't it? Well, don't panic. The changes will only affect people who receive
their television signals over the air - either through a set-top antenna or an outside antenna.
If you receive your television service by cable or by sattelite, you don't have to do anything. Your
current cable connection, converter box, or satellite receiver will continue to provide you with the same service
that you're getting now. The good news is that digital television is well worth all the trouble. I'll
say more about that later in this article.
NOTE: If you own a Digital Converter Box and lost one or more channels after June 12,
|My TV||Do I Need A Converter?|
|Old TV Connected to Cable||NO|
|Old TV Connected to Satellite||NO|
|Old TV Using an Antenna||YES|
|New TV Connected to Cable||NO|
|New TV Connected to Satellite||NO|
|New TV Using an Antenna||NO|
But if you receive your television signal over the air with an antenna, the change will affect you,
especially if your television is more than 3 or 4 years old. The key is that your television
needs to either have a digital tuner built in, or you will need to buy a digital converter box to covert the
digital signals into the analog signals older sets were designed to use. If you have a high-definition
television or if your set is less than 3-4 years old, it probably has a digital tuner already. But
you need to check the instruction manual
or the manufacturer's website to be sure. For the last few years, retailers have been required
by law to post prominent signs by televisions they display to warn consumers if they do not have
the necessary digital tuner. But several retailers have recently been fined by the FCC because
they did not post such signs. So, check the instruction manual or the label on the television
to get the model number and then visit the manufacturer's website to check the specifications
for your set. It must say "digital tuner" or "ATSC Tuner" to be ready
for the new digital signals. And if your set has a digital receiver built in, you're all
set and you don't need to do anything. Just make sure that you have it set up
correctly to recieve the digital channels.
So what do you do if your set doesn't have a digital tuner? You need to buy a digital converter box. They cost between $40-60.00. The good news is that the Federal Government is issuing free coupons worth $40.00 off the price of approved converter boxes, so the ultimate price to you should be under $20.00, and possibly next to nothing. You can get up to 2 coupons per household. Just click on the ad to the left here. You may also need to buy a new digital-ready antenna, but that depends on where you live and where your local stations are located in relation to you.
JUNE 12, 2009 UPDATE: The change-over to all digital television is now with us. If your TV stopped working, you need a digital converter box. You can still apply for one of the $20.00 coupons, but since you won't receive it for a couple of weeks, you have to decide if the wait is worth it to you.
IF YOU BOUGHT AND INSTALLED A CONVERTER BOX BEFORE JUNE 12, YOU NEED TO RE-SCAN FOR CHANNELS. Following the cut-off of analog signals, many stations around the country changed the frequency they used to transmit their new digital signals. So you need to re-scan - or, essentially, reset your converter box. Just turn your TV on, and use the remote control to enter the Set-up Menu. Select "Scan" or "Re-Tune" or whatever your box says for setting up the channel selections. What happens is that the converter box will scan for channels and reset the selections available to you. You may well find that you have new channel choices as some stations are boosting their signal strength, now that they don't have to pay for two transmitters.
Even though this program has been developing for several years now, whether or not you have a coupon, finding a digital converter in stores can be difficult. Three major retailers have made a significant commitment to carrying these converter boxes: Wal-Mart, Radio Shack, and Best Buy. When you receive your coupon, a list of the stores closest to you is included in the envelope. However, you may find the converter boxes are often sold out, or only one of the stores from in your area offers them. So you may have to shop or call several of them before you find one in stock. You can also order a converter box by mail through Amazon.com and use your $40.00 off coupon online. See the box at the right.
Installing the converter box is very simple. It's installed between the antenna and your television set, just like connecting a VCR or DVD player. The antenna is connected to the input jack on the converter, and the input connector on your television is connected to the output jack on the converter. The converter boxes require a coaxial cable connection. If your antenna or television set uses a pair of wires, you will need to buy an appropriate adapter. Electronics stores like Radio Shack and Best Buy carry the adapters. Once the converter box is properly connected, it's just a matter of going through a short set-up sequence to allow the converter box to locate all of the digital signals in your area. Digital broadcast signals are more "directional" than conventional analog signals, so you will get better results if you aim your antenna properly. The website AntennaWeb has information for most major US cities to help you decide how best to aim your antenna. Another source of information is the FTC's DTV Reception Map that lets you see a list of digital TV signals in your area.
Try your old antenna first, of course. But because digital television signals are transmitted on different frequencies than UHF analog signals, you might need to buy a new antenna that is designed to receive digital TV. Since digital signals are close to VHF frequencies of analog television, many people will find that their old antennas will work just fine as long as they're aimed properly. A weak digital signal will result in the picture breaking up into pixelated rectangles, frozen images, and possible interruptions in the sound. If you just can't get a good signal with your old antenna, then you'll need to buy a new digital antenna.
There are two basic kinds of digital antennas - amplified and non-amplified. Amplified antennas include electronics to boost the signals to an acceptable level for your television or converter box to produce a good picture and sound. If you live fairly close to your local television stations, then you should have good results with a basic digital antenna. But if you live in a rural area or more than 10-20 miles from the furthest station, then it will probably be worthwhile investing in an amplified antenna.
You will almost certainly find that the
quality of the picture you receive with the converter box is significantly better than what
you were used to with the old analog signal because the digital signals are less subject to
problems of interference and work well even with relatively weak signals. In addition,
television stations can now broadcast more than one signal on their digital channels, so
you might find that you are able to receive several more channels. Most stations will
broadcast both a standard definition signal and a high definition signal. Yes, that's right.
Digital television and high definition are not the same thing. Old standard definition television
is broadcast at 480 lines of vertical resolution. High definition television is broadcast at
720 or up to 1080 lines of resolution. A digital converter box
will let you see the high definition channels. While high definition channels will certainly
seem sharper on all televisions, older televisions will only show them to the best of their
For more information about the change to digital television, including
information on getting your $40.00 off coupon, visit the
FCC website at http://www.dtv2009.gov/.
When you receive your coupon, bring it with you when you go to the store to buy your digital
converter box and you will receive a $40.00 discount at the cash register.
While we have cable
for the living room and bedroom televisions, there is no cable connection for our kitchen TV. Even
though I live in a large city, the over-the-air television reception is poor in our neighborhood. Only
two or three stations have an acceptable signal. But with the converter box, I was able to receive
all of the local network stations, as well as a couple of independent stations I hadn't been able to
receive before, and all with a very sharp, clear picture and static-free sound. Growing up, I can remember
how the picture would be distorted when airplanes would fly overhead. That won't happen with digital TV.
And since the box picks up both the
standard definition and the high definition channels, on many stations I have a choice of
full-screen or widescreen images. Beyond that, the local PBS station has three extra
digital channels - one general interest, one dedicated to children, and one that shows cooking and
creative arts programs. The local NBC affiliate has a special digital weather channel. Weather
is something of an obsession here in Minnesota. Our unique "theater of seasons" always
keeps us guessing, so I'm sure that's a popular channel. And the digital signals include program
schedule information so that with a push of a button on the remote control, I can see the name of the
program that's showing at the moment and what's coming up next.
Installation was dirt simple and required
no tools because the kitchen television has a coaxial cable connector. The digital converter box
I bought came with the extra length of cable, so I didn't need to buy anything extra. But even if your set uses
the old two-wire connection, the only tool you'll need is a small screwdriver. I removed the rabbit ears
from the set and spread them out over the window curtain rod next to it.
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