As the nation prepares to switch to all-digital television broadcasting in early 2009, coupons for a special converter are being released this week to help consumers with older, analog television sets make the switch.
Anyone who receives TV signals with rooftop or rabbit-ear antennas and an analog TV will need to purchase a digital converter to continue using their old set when stations switch to an all-digital signal Feb. 17, 2009. To help households affected by the change, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, or NTIA, is distributing $40 vouchers toward the purchase of the converter.
Here's a look at the coupon program, who's affected and the basics of digital television:
Who needs a converter?
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Households using an antenna to pick up over-the-airwaves television signals for an analog TV will need the equipment, according to the NTIA. Any TV purchased before 1998 will need the converter. If your TV was made after 1998, you can look in your owner's manual to learn if your set has a built-in digital tuner. Many TVs also are labeled on the back. If the label says "digital input" or "ATSC" (Advanced Television Systems Committee), then you're good to go. Most TV sets manufactured since 2004 have built-in digital tuners.
If you have cable, satellite or another form of paid TV service, you don't need a converter. Glenn McFadden, Comporium Communications vice president of operations, said local cable customers won't be affected. Cable providers will transmit a signal that works with both analog and digital TVs until at least 2012, he said.
The latest Nielsen Media research shows about 13 percent of the country's household televisions will need a converter.
How do I get a coupon?
Coupons for up to $40 off a converter box can be requested by calling 1-888-DTV-2009 or by visiting the Web site www.dtv2009.gov. It's recommended to request a coupon soon because the federally funded program has a limited number of vouchers. If requested now, they should arrive sometime in February or March, officials predict. The card will come with a list of retailers that carry the converters, although most electronics stores will stock the equipment.
Are digital TV and high definition the same thing?
Not at all. While digital television generally has a clearer picture than analog, HD picture is only achieved through a higher resolution. You still need an HDTV to watch high-definition programming. Likewise, just because your TV is a high definition model doesn't mean it can tune in a digital signal. Most HDTVs are digital, but you should check just to make sure.
Federal authorities say the switch was mandated for two reasons: better picture quality for consumers and to free space on the broadcast spectrum.
Analog TV signals are transmitted through the airwaves on a radio frequency. By switching to a digital signal, more channels can be broadcast and the analog space will be freed up for public safety channels or auctioned off to wireless networks. Digital television also tends to have better picture quality.
Want to learn more?
The Web site www.dtv2009.gov has pages of information about the switch. It also has a quiz to help determine which TVs will need a converter box.