Hawes Mechanical Television Archive by James T. Hawes, AA9DT
DTV Changeover FAQ, Part 2

DTV Changeover Basics

QUESTION. What is the "digital TV changeover"?

ANSWER. The federal government that you elected requires all full-power, analog TV stations to cease broadcasting in 2009. After these stations shut down, digital TV stations will replace most of them. Also, after February 17, channels above channel 51 will be unavailable for television broadcasting. The government is auctioning off these frequencies for use in telephony, security and the Web.

The government estimates that the DTV conversion will obsolete TV sets in 21 million homes. Almost that many more homes use cable, but have sets that aren't connected to the cable. The Consumers Union estimates that the DTV changover will black out 80 million TV sets. Sets that receive cable, rather than off-air broadcasts, will continue to operate for awhile.

Those who wish to continue watching off-air TV can apply for TV converter coupons. The NTIA, part of the Department of Commerce, distributes the coupons. The NTIA will make some 22.25 million coupons available, two to each household. Each coupon is valid until three months from the sending date. The NTIA will distribute coupons until they run out. If necessary, the NTIA can reorder coupons. If it reorders, the second coupon order will total 11.25 million. In any case, the NTIA stops distributing coupons on March 31, 2009.

Update: Uncle Sugar was even more generous with your tax dollars than he promised. The government stalled the analog TV shutdown deadline until June 12, 2009. (Low-power broadcasters remained on the air for a few more years.) Uncle Sugar kept handing out coupons until the end of July, 2009.

Of course, the coupons are an example of rationing, what we otherwise know as command economics. Command economics is the opposite of market economics, the usual system in free countries like the United States. Your rising income taxes pay for the coupons. The government claims that sale of the 700 MHz band (channels 51 through 59) covers some costs. This is doublespeak. According to law, these frequencies belong to you and me. Selling our frequencies amounts to another tax.

Each coupon is worth $40 toward the purchase of a DTV converter box. Most converter boxes cost more than $40, about $70 and up. (The EchoStar TR-40 is the only $40 box.) You can only use one coupon for each converter box that you purchase.

• For more about the coupon program, click Coupons.

QUESTION. When will conversion take place?

ANSWER. February 17, 2009 at 12 midnight. If you receive TV over the air (by antenna), then your analog TV will become techno-junk. It will be useful only as a broadband noise generator. If you have a cable or satellite setup, your TV will continue to operate for a few years (probably until 2012).

The cable cutoff. Many Web sites claim that cable will continue to broadcast analog signals indefinitely. Maybe so, but "indefinitely" doesn't mean forever. In the federal rules, 2012 is the decision date for cable. Make no mistake. When cable providers have predominantly more digital business, they'll discontinue analog telecasts. Cable providers can't afford to support obsolete technology.

QUESTION. How will conversion affect me?

ANSWER. Some of us watch TV over the air, that is, with an antenna. For these people, their TV sets will stop working in February, 2009. The government is literally holding these sets hostage. Until the owners pay the ransom by buying converter boxes, over-the-air programming will be unavailable.

The other option is to junk your perfectly good TV and buy a new, digital set. If you choose this option, your local retailer will be thrilled. As with other digital products, your new TV will become obsolete very quickly.

If you have cable TV, the picture is a little better. Your cable box can provide your TV with the proper analog signal, just as always. You won't need a converter box. For now. The story changes when cable switches to all digital programming in about 2012. Between now and then, some analog cable channels will switch to a digital service tier. Unless you upgrade, you'll lose these channels.

There are a few exceptions to the changeover rules for off-air reception...

  • Border stations in Canada, Mexico and Cuba aren't changing in 2009. US residents near these stations can continue to pick up telecasts. (Cuban reception would probably only occur during ducting, sporadic-E or meteor showers. Such reception is possible, though!)

  • Low-power, US stations are exempt from changing in 2009.

  • In 2009, pirate analog TV stations will persist, or might even increase in number.

QUESTION. I watch shows over the air. What are the steps to get DTV shows on my set?

ANSWER. Follow these steps...

  1. Apply to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) for your $40-off coupons. The NTIA is an agency of the US Department of Commerce. Since the government is obsoleting your TV, it's responsible for helping you to restore operation. Unfortunately, the idea is to bribe you with your own tax dollars. (Think about this: One way or the other, you're paying for this federal largesse.) To apply for coupons, click here: Coupon Application.

  2. Buy and install a DTV-to-analog TV converter box. The box goes between your antenna and your TV. You'll have to use the box with your DVD or VCR recorder, too. In fact, anything that connects to your antenna must now connect to the converter. Find a retailer here: Retailer List.

  3. Or: Buy a TV, VCR, TiVo, game unit or DVD layer with a digital tuner. Connect this device between your antenna and your TV.

  4. Insert the battery into the converter remote control.

  5. Switch on the converter and the TV.

  6. Perform the software setup routine. The converter computer will find the local DTV channels for you.

  7. Begin viewing the channel that you'll watch the most. Note that many digital stations multicast. That is, they transmit up to six different standard-definition programs. For example, you can use your remote to select Channel 26. You'll probably see Channel 26.1. Then press the "Channel Up" button to select Channels 26.2 through 26.6.

  8. Optional. Most converters have a signal strength meter feature. (On the Zenith remote, find the "SIGNAL" button.) Press the signal strength button.

  9. Optional. Using the meter, aim your antenna for best signal on your favorite channel.

  10. Optional. To close the meter display, click the signal strength button again.

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