Survival guide to the DTV transition

How to make sure your old television set is ready to make the leap next year.

By , Contributor for The Christian Science Monitor

Millions of Americans could flick on their televisions in February to find their regularly scheduled programs replaced by static “snow.”

On Feb. 17, all high-power TV stations will switch modes and begin broadcasting with an all-digital signal. While these new over-the-air signals are an improvement in many ways, antennas on older TVs cannot read them. Most people, whether they know it or not, are already prepared for the coming TV conversion. And even if you’re not, getting equipped only requires a small converter box. So, just in case, here’s a quick survival guide to make sure you’re ready for the end of analog TV.

Who’s affected?
If you have cable or satellite TV, you’re all set. The switch to a digital signal only messes with free, over-the-air broadcasts.

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If you bought your TV in the past year, then you should be just fine. Federal law required stores to stop stocking analog-only television sets. The new models have a digital converter built in, allowing them to recognize the new airwaves. Pretty much every flat-panel or HD TV comes with this addition.

The only televisions that might hiccup come February are old tubes that are hooked up to an antenna and newer sets labeled as digital or HD “monitors.”

How to prepare (and not pay for it)
If you watch over-the-air programming and want to keep your aging analog TV, you’ll need to buy a digital-to-analog converter. These small set-top boxes take digital signals from an antenna and pass them along to the TV in analog form.

The boxes are available at most consumer electronics stores for about $40.

To help people recoup some of the cost of this move to digital, the government is issuing coupons for $40 off converter boxes. To apply for coupons, go to dtv2009.gov or call 888-388-2009.

“Millions need to still make their decision [about whether to upgrade],” says Todd Sedmak, Communications Director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in Washington. “If they’re going to go the coupon route, we really encourage them to apply for their coupons today, buy the converter box when the coupon comes, and try it out, all before the end of the year.”

There’s a two-coupons-per-household limit. It takes about three to four weeks to process the applications and the coupons expire 90 days after they are mailed. They cannot be reissued, whether lost, stolen, or expired. “If for some reason your coupons are expired, ask a family member or friend to apply and share them with you,” suggests Mr. Sedmak.

DTV2009.gov lists more than 20 stores and websites that accept the government coupons, and you can find performance reviews on the many different converter boxes at consumerreports.org/dtv and cnet.com.

Why the switch?
The conversion to all-digital signal frees up airwaves for more Wi-Fi services and new, dedicated communication channels for emergency first responders. Digital broadcasting also allows stations to provide a crisper picture (see graphic, below). Programs can also be broadcast in high definition, but just because local stations can doesn’t mean that every one will.

Many families that go shopping for a new converter box are deciding to buy a new TV instead, says Bill O’Mahoney, store services manager at a Best Buy in Boston. Others opt to throw out their old analog “bunny ears” and buy an antenna with the digital converter built-in.

“I would be more focused on finding the right [digital] antenna for you rather than the right converter box, because they are both the same,” Mr. O’Mahoney says. “If you have a great TV, you can have a great experience at home, even if it’s a basic tube.”

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