At midnight on Tuesday February 17, 2009, all US television stations that broadcast at full power will stop broadcasting in analog and switch to entirely digital broadcasting. (TV stations in Hawaii will go digital at noon on Thursday January 15.)
Why is this happening?
Digital broadcasting is more flexible and efficient, enabling broadcasters to transmit higher-quality programming using less of the airwaves. Once the change is complete, the government plans to use some of the freed-up channels for police and fire departments, and others for new wireless services.
How will this change to digital TV (DTV) affect you?
The two key factors are:
- Whether you receive your TV stations for free using an antenna vs. a paid TV service, and
- Whether your TV equipment (TVs, VCRs, etc.) has built-in analog vs. digital tuners.
When I started to read about this, it seemed likely that it would affect me since I have older TV equipment connected to an indoor antenna.
Step 1: What TV equipment do you have?
I suggest you start by making a list of all your TV equipment. This includes any equipment that has the ability to tune in a TV channel, including:
- VCRs - video cassette recorders
- DVRs - digital video recorders; they store the recordings in digital form (usually a DVD or internal hard disk), the tuner may or may not be digital
- TiVo or similar devices - these are special DVRs that, for example, let you record a show by name (e.g., "60 Minutes") instead of by time and channel number (Sundays 7-8pm on channel 4)
Don't forget any occasional-use equipment, including:
- Battery-powered or portable TVs
- TV equipment at a secondary residence or office, such as a summer home, cottage, guest house, apartment, or rental unit.
In my case, I have one TV and two VCRs.
Step 2: Antenna or paid TV service?
For each piece of equipment (TV, VCR, etc.), does it use an antenna or a paid TV service?
Common types of over-the-air antennas include:
- "Rabbit ears" or "set-top" antennas
- Rooftop antennas
- Dish antennas that receive regular broadcast stations (not satellite dishes)
Common paid TV services include:
- Cable TV services, such as Comcast and RCN
- Fiber-optic TV services, such as Verizon FIOS
- Satellite services, such as DirecTV and Dish Network
In my case, my TV and VCRs all connect to the same "rabbit ears" antenna because they're all stacked on a TV cart that I move around my apartment. In fact, I'm so talented at forgetting to retract the rabbit ears and breaking them off as I pull the cart through my doorframes that I keep my supply of spare rabbit ears right on the cart!
Paid TV service? Good news!
of your TV equipment is connected to a paid TV service (cable TV, satellite, etc.), then you're all set. It doesn't matter whether your equipment has built-in analog tuners or digital tuners. The change in broadcast technology from analog to digital will not affect you.
Antenna? You'll need a little more info
of your TV equipment uses an antenna, then you need to determine whether each piece of equipment has a built-in analog or digital tuner. You can:
- Look at the unit itself, or
- Look at the owner's manual, or
- Call the manufacturer or check their web site
Look for "digital input" or "ATSC" (Advanced Television Systems Committee, the DTV format) or "HDTV." If you see "NTSC" (National Television System Committee), that means the tuner is analog.
If you bought it before 1998, it probably doesn't have a digital tuner. Between 1998 and 2004, only a limited number of large (42-inch projection) TVs had digital tuners. Starting in 2004 digital tuners became much more common, but you should still check your equipment to be sure.
In my case, my TV (2003) and VCRs (1999 and 2006) are all analog.
Once you determine whether each of your TV devices has an analog or digital tuner, here's the story:
Case 1: Antenna and Digital tuner: Good news!
of your TV equipment has digital tuners and uses an antenna, then you're ready for the change to digital TV broadcasting. You won't need to spend any money on new equipment or services, but if you want to explore the additional broadcast digital channels, you will need to learn a little more about how to tell your equipment to tune in to these new channels.
Case 2: Antenna and Analog tuner: Bad news!
of your TV equipment has an analog tuner and uses an antenna, if you want to continue watching or recording TV these are your options:
Option 1: Buy a converter box, keep your antenna and analog equipment
- Option 1: Buy a digital-to-analog converter box, keep your antenna and analog equipment.
- Option 2: Replace your analog equipment (TV, VCR, etc.) with ones that have a built-in digital tuner, keep your antenna.
- Option 3: Sign up with a paid TV service (cable TV, satellite, etc.), keep your analog equipment, stop using your antenna.
If you have analog equipment with an antenna (e.g., an older TV with a "rabbit ears" antenna), you can buy a digital-to-analog converter box. This device plugs in "between" your analog equipment and your antenna, and converts the digital broadcast to an analog signal. However, there are some trade-offs.
- You won't have to buy newer equipment (TVs, VCRs, etc.).
- You won't have to change your existing antenna setup.
- Converter boxes only convert one station at a time, and feed it to your equipment on channel 3 or 4. This means that you will no longer choose your stations using your TV or VCR, you will have to tune using the converter box.
- If you have multiple TVs, you'll need a separate converter box for each one.
- If you use a VCR to record programs on different channels at different times, you will need to reprogram your VCR to always record channel 3, and then either manually set the converter box to the correct channel in advance, or buy a fancier converter box which lets you program it to tune in the correct channels at the appropriate times.
- If you want to enable your equipment to tune in to different channels at the same time (e.g., watch channel 2 on your TV while your VCR tapes channel 4), you will need to buy separate converter boxes for each piece of equipment, even if they share the same antenna.
- A colleague suggests checking Consumer Reports for their recommendations before buying a converter box.
Converter boxes start around $45, and are available at most electronics stores and online retailers. To help with the cost, Congress created the TV Converter Box Coupon Program, run by the Department of Commerce, for households to keep using their analog TV equipment after the change to digital TV. US households can apply for up to two $40 coupons that can be applied toward the cost of eligible converter boxes (excluding sales tax), one coupon per converter box, at participating retailers. Coupons expire 90 days after they are mailed. You can apply online at http://www.dtv2009.gov
or by phone or mail (see website for details and a list of eligible converter boxes) until March 31, 2009 or until supplies are exhausted.
Option 2: Replace your analog equipment (TV, VCR, etc.) with ones that have a built-in digital tuner, keep your antenna
There are more choices than ever, especially for televisions - flat screens, plasma screens, digital, HD (high-definition), etc. Don't buy more than you need, e.g., you don't need an HDTV to watch digital broadcast TV. By law, all TV equipment sold in the US after March 1, 2007 must either contain a digital tuner or prominently display a label stating that the device has an analog tuner.
Option 3: Sign up with a paid TV service (cable TV, satellite, etc.), keep your analog equipment, stop using your antenna
With this option you switch from receiving free broadcast TV to a paid service, and you may also save money if you choose a package that includes telephone and internet service. Be careful that you don't sign up for higher-quality channels than your equipment can display, e.g., high-definition channels when you don't have an HDTV.
What I did
Since I often tape two shows while simultaneously watching a third, once I discovered that converter boxes only convert one station at a time it became clear that converter boxes (Option 1) would be quite impractical in my case. I had already switched to cable internet a few years ago, and I added "basic" cable TV when I learned that it cost less each month to have both than to have cable internet by itself. I simply never had any reason to watch the cable TV since my rabbit ears worked just fine. Now, with the upcoming switch to digital TV, rather than replace all of my analog equipment with digital models (Option 2) I've simply switched from my indoor antenna to my cable TV service (Option 3), and adjusted my VCRs' programming to match the cable TV channel numbers. Anyone need some spare rabbit ears?
Additional things you should know
Where to go from here
- None of this advice apples to a TV (and VCR/DVR) on which you don't receive television stations, e.g., one on which you only watch VHS or DVD movies, play video games, or watch closed-circuit video.
- If you have a battery-powered portable or handheld TV, it may not be possible to set it up with a converter box.
- This change to digital applies to the approximately 1,800 full-power TV stations in the US. Low-power TV stations (which number about 3,000 in the US), and low-power "translator" (booster) stations may continue broadcasting in analog.
- Congress may decide to delay the change to digital TV due to pressure from various groups, plus concerns that many consumers aren't ready and that digital broadcasting may not work as well as expected.
- Cable TV companies are also moving many of their channels to digital starting March 1, 2009, but this is unrelated to the change to digital broadcast (over-the-air) stations.
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