December 21, 2005 12:12 PM PST

Digital TV switch set for early 2009

It's almost official: Starting Feb. 18, 2009, millions of televisions in American households will go black unless they're outfitted to receive all-digital broadcasts.

The deadline became final on Wednesday as part of a broader spending bill that the U.S. Senate approved by an ultra-thin margin. Stuck in a deadlock over proposals involving Medicaid and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the legislation earned approval only after Vice President Dick Cheney flew back from a Middle East trip to push the 50-50 vote over the edge.

The 2009 deadline will not affect the vast majority of Americans who already subscribe to cable or satellite TV. But households relying on an antenna to receive "over-the-air" analog broadcasts must acquire a digital tuner to continue receiving TV shows.

The Senate's action effectively ends months of debate and solidifies a compromise politicians made this weekend with the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier versions of the Senate bill had called for an April 7, 2009 deadline, while the House had pushed for Dec. 31, 2008, as the cutoff date.

By the time of the 2009 switch, the government will have auctioned the remaining spectrum to companies interested in deploying wireless technologies. The proceeds are estimated at about $10 billion by the Congressional Budget Office. The auction is supposed to begin no later than Jan. 7, 2008.

Wednesday's vote won immediate praise from the technology industry, which sees the imminent auction as a breeding ground for business opportunities.

"It's just about the best Christmas present that I can think of coming to the tech sector from the public policy process," said Janice Obuchowski, executive director of the High Tech DTV Coalition, a group of 19 trade associations and technology companies including AT&T, Dell, Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Texas Instruments. "It's really great spectrum, and it's going to yield some great applications."

Analog TV signals use the 700MHz frequency band, meaning that by nature, they travel farther than those on bands used by the wireless and electronics industries today. Reusing that spectrum could mean easier and cheaper deployment of broadband networks--and translate to more affordable, widespread high-speed Internet access for consumers.


The compromise also settled differences over the amount of money to be set aside for a set-top box subsidy program for those still relying on over-the-air analog broadcasts.

Before Wednesday's action, a 1997 law stipulated that analog television would have be cut off on Dec. 31, 2006, or when 85 percent of households are capable of receiving digital signals, whichever arrived sooner. A slice of that spectrum would be handed over to police, fire, ambulance and other public safety responders who rely on the analog spectrum to communicate.

But eight years later, with the transition nowhere near that percentage mark and the 9/11 Commission warning of the perils of inadequate spectrum, politicians and interest groups stepped up the pressure to set a hard deadline. Reports of bungled communications during Hurricane Katrina upped the urgency.

The final bill also earmarks $1 billion for upgrading emergency communications equipment.

President Bush must sign the package into law before it takes effect. Because the House of Representatives also must approve it--which is expected to be just a formality--it was unclear Wednesday when it would reach the White House.

Upgrading the rabbit ears
American households have until the February 2009 deadline to ensure that their televisions are capable of receiving digital broadcasts.

According to congressional estimates, less than 15 percent of households rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts. According to estimates by the Federal Communications Commission, that number will drop to 7 percent by 2009.

But advocacy group Consumers Union said that will still leave an unconscionable number of individual sets--many of them operated by elderly and low-income viewers--ill-equipped to meet the changes.

Households that already rely solely on cable or satellite broadcasting should not have to make any changes. Satellite services, such as DirecTV, are already capable of converting signals, and most cable companies intend a seamless transition, such as re-engineering their signals at the source, so that no extra home hardware is necessary.

Many are already conscious of the switch. According to the Consumer Electronics Association, TV manufacturers offer more than 600 models of digital TV products, including integrated sets, digital monitors and set-top receivers. Since they began releasing the devices in 1998, they have sold more than 13 million products.

FCC rules require all television sets and other TV receivers on the market to contain digital tuners by March 1, 2007.

In short, only those who continue to rely solely on over-the-air broadcast stations should have to make adjustments. Short of buying a new digital-ready television, they can opt for a digital-to-analog converter box, which manufacturers estimate will cost about $50 by 2009.

The approved Senate package would dispense up to $1.5 billion in government subsidies to households, which may request up to two $40 vouchers to use toward purchasing set-top boxes.

But Consumers Union argued those funds are sorely inadequate to meet those needs and would still leave $2 billion in overall out-of-pocket costs for consumers.

Jeannine Kenney, a senior policy analyst for the organization, also criticized the bill for setting aside only $5 million for consumer education. "Consumers will have no idea what's coming and what they need to do to prepare for it, making it likely that tens of millions of television sets will go black on Feb. 17, 2009," she said.

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Fifty Dollar Boxes
I for one happen to get my TV over the air. I'm still waiting for one of those mythical $50 boxes to show up at my local retailer. I want to go digital, but I can't justify spending $300 on a converter that might be obsolete in a few years. Oddly, I have no problem blowing $1000 on a computer that absolutely will be obsolete in the same time span.
Posted by NewWorldDan (15 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I picked one up
at Radio Shack for $80 in September (maybe Oct, I don't remember). It works great, but the brand was discontinued. Will it stop working in a year or so? That would mean all TV broadcasters would have to buy new equipment, TOO. So, while it might not pick up some new data service five years from now, it'll still translate them DTV packets just fine.
<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Once demand for DTV builds up, these will be available for $10 - the device really contains just one chip. Guess what happens when they're mass produced.
Posted by sanenazok (3449 comments )
Link Flag
Typical Feet Dragging
I really can not take this typical American Politician feet dragging
any more. Stick to the original schedule. These Morals put off
implementing the Metric System forever. These invertebrates
need to stand their ground and force the corporations in making
the box top receivers now. Just try and buy a under $100. (Radio
Shack has one, thats all I can find). All the stations in my area
are now broadcasting Digital and no one thinks they need to do
anything now to buy or sell the units. Why? BECAUSE THE
Posted by LinuxRules (222 comments )
Reply Link Flag
$10 is too much?
According to the story, by the time it's needed, a converter box should be about $50, minus a $40 subsidy. So like $10.

Does Consumers Union think $10 is too much?

Or do they think those future prices are bogus?
Posted by open-mind (1027 comments )
Reply Link Flag
10 dollars "is" too much
Depends upon the people that have to switch, Many elderly on a fixed income now are having to decide whether to eat Dog or cat food, in order to buy their medications. Also have you seen the prices of the new technology. a 25-30" Plasma TV costing $1k or over. While a typical CRT Set of that size, $150-200.00.

Also, Beside being expensive, the new technology is not near as reliable, and currently not made to be servicable by qulified local technicians. Many Brands , today, require set to be sent back to manufacturer, or the parts to be sent back and fixed at factory. I kknow all of this because, I am a member of an email newsgroup from a servicers organization.

So we are talking about people getting 600-700 dollars per month SS or even less welfare, or SSI, once paying rent, ultilities, medications, Healthcare, having $50.00 left over. WE even have parts of Apalatichia that $100.00 amonth is a tidy sum.
Posted by pjonesCET (42 comments )
Link Flag
"It's the content, stupid."
Too bad the conversion to all-digital broadcasts will do little to improve the dreck that qualifies as entertainment today. I canceled my cable service and then my satellite service because I refused to pay for so many unwanted channels, to say nothing of the endless commercials. I would rather the government use the $40 voucher to help fund better OTA programming.
Posted by MichaelM (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Right, now the gov should be in content creation
and what kind of content do they choose to encourage?, with whose standard of decency?, with what kind of biased discovery channel, one that denies that global warming is not occuring, that sex ed should only teach don't want uncle sam in that business
Posted by Pascoli (74 comments )
Link Flag
And by then I'll be podcatching HDTV
This is very good.

The broadcast industry is forcing a whole new standard and requiring that all equipment be upgraded.

All of the TVs will require on-board computers to decode and decompress the signals captured over the air (an 'iffy' situation at best) or from cable.

People who are resistant to having these devices, lets call them neo-luddites, are not going to be happy when their old Philco goes dark; but the industry doesn't care.

To be honest, neither do we, the technorati.

This WILL happen, whether its stupid or not.

Meanwhile podcatching (and podasting) are already becoming entrenched.

Why pay for an additional TiVO just because you're not there spot on seven to watch a show, when you're already using a computer.

With podcatching you can elect to catch it anytime it becomes available, watch it when you want, as often as you want, to fast forward or reverse over parts of it, all on the same HDTV screen, that is dropping in price as I write this.

Your money goes directly to the producer, the content provider, which kills the avertising market.

They'll be forced to use Google and make their ads for podcasting.

You don't bothered by the broadcaster's eternal need for money, with the ever growing 30% interruptions of the programming.

When that programming isn't preempted because some other programming knocks your show from the roster just because it was cheaper to produce and doesn't impact their ability to sell coffee-flavoured hemmorhoid shaving cream.

The broadcasters never thought that the internet would be their downfall.

After all, its packetized, non-continuous, jerky and could never compete with on-air quality. (Trying to watch streaming video can be time consuming, what with all those 'Buffering ..." messages, and trying to listen to streaming audio can be painful to artistic ears.)

But since they're going digital and the old rabbit ears are about to be lopped off, they're in the same boat.

If a fly farts or there's a flare on Aldebaran, your tevevisual experience boils down to "No Signal, or encrypted..."

Podcatching is a much superior delivery mechanism for digital content.

Well, they brought it on themselves.

I predict that they'll have another five years before their investors force them into liquidation.

Broadcsating has commited suicide. Long live podcasting (and podcasters.)
Posted by CharlesRovira (97 comments )
Reply Link Flag
No one out there know anything bout the technogy
digital tv is here to stay all you have to do is get a high end video card. these cards will become avialable and make downloading podcasts obosolete all you have to do is hook up a uhf antenna or your cable to you digital reciever onboard your computer that is intergrated with you tv . then you set your computer to record your programs. who needs tivo or podcasts.
Posted by thebigrod (3 comments )
Link Flag
They will extend it again
Watch them push it back again. It was supposed to happen Jan 1, 2006
Posted by sda3 (16 comments )
Reply Link Flag
People still won't buy these expensive sets. Most people I know don't care about HDTV.
Posted by paulsecic (298 comments )
Link Flag
...and again, and again.
most people could care less about HDTV. WHY do you think most all the stations are dragging their feet about implementing full 24/7 HD broadcasts?? It would cost them a helluva lot of $$$$$ to do it because hardly anyone is actually watching it on one of those fancy overpriced HD TV sets; we are all still using our ole 4:3 Aspect Ratio CRT televisions.

The reason they keep pushing it back is the ADVERTISING INDUSTRY lobbys for it. Ya think they want to loose 20% of their viewing audience because the viewers TV can't decode the DIGITAL SIGNAL??

Also, TV stations set their AD RATES "by the numbers" so they would have to drop their rates if all those ANALOG ONLY viewers were cut-off.
Posted by drwho (37 comments )
Link Flag
Free to air digital tv in the UK already - Box £30
Free to air digital TV is already in the UK and you can get the convertor boxes for £30 whcih is about $50, so the price is right.

This is what I have and it suits my needs. The picture quality is great and the extra information available is fantastic.

I spent some of the summer watching Wimbledon and when the through the digital box I could watch any of 3 courts on the same channel. So, if the offical coverage wasn't the game I wanted to see I wasn't stuck with it.

I think it is right to change over to digital for so many reasons.
Surround Sound
Imrpoved Control
Free up bandwidth for all those new technologies we want.

By the time 2009 comes people will be crying out for it. Think back 4/5 years. Where was broadband where was wireless, where was personal medial players (not using a brand name...)
By 2009 digital will be mainstream and the conversion will have happened with out any fuss.
Posted by ahickey (177 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I was under the impression that receiving broadcast TV in the UK was an activity subject to a yearly tax and that this was enforced by roving equipment trucks. Each truck being outfitted to catch those horrible few who dare attempt to evade the tax by watching TV..for FREE!
Posted by (62 comments )
Link Flag
and down under
Australia rolled it out in 2001. I'm pretty sure they're in simulcasting still (just like the US), but they will beat US to full transition.
<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
They have receivers starting at suggested retail price of US$72.
Posted by sanenazok (3449 comments )
Link Flag
Already Obsolete?
Seems that they are ensuring that Government and Big Business will still have total control over what and how you receive information over the airwaves. This will assure new technologies will be controlled and monopolized and personal expressions censored for years to come. I wonder how many superbowl commercials it would take to make those set top boxes free?
Posted by tofarrell (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Require Inclusion of ATSC Tuners NOW!...
They are letting the consumer electronics industry get away with another year or so of peddling analog-only sets when the vast majority of couch potatoes do not even know this is coming. They are magnifying the same problem they are trying to solve by extending the date for the "required" inclusion of a digital tuner.
The sidenote to this is that it doesn't take much to include the tuner in a set but if the manufacturers sell the unit as a "monitor" as so many HD sets sell as then this requirement does not apply so they wind up having to buy a set top box anyway.

Bottom line: If you are going to buy a TV for "over the air" (OTA) use then you need to select one of the few that has a digital tuner built-in or you will be playing multiple remotes again just like in the old VHS days. Remember this too, When your cable or satellite signal goes dark for one reason or another, if you don't have the tuner then you are SOL (solidly out of luck). What did you think it meant?

Fred Dunn
Posted by fred dunn (793 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Actuall $10 is far too much, it should be free!
Since the Spectrum will cancelled by law, then the government, is required to provide a free alternative to end user, to be paid for and installed by all broadcasters of this technology, for that is the only way, to insure uniform introduction by the due date!
Posted by heystoopid (691 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The spectrum belongs to the government. When was the last time you got anything "for free" from the government? Whenever you get something from uncle Sam, you're paying for it in tax expenditures. It's just re-distributing your money. Also, when did broadcasters EVER have to provide free reception equipment. I don't remember seeing too many CBS-provided radio's or TV's around.
Posted by sanenazok (3449 comments )
Link Flag
Is this a threat from the MPAA, oops I mean FCC?
Why does the FCC want to outdate the analog standards? Could it be the MPAA has paid them a "dear visit"?
Posted by bobby_brady (765 comments )
Reply Link Flag
'twas the Land of the Setting Sun
The discussion of digital TV started in Congress after Japanese showed off their version of digital TV. A few grand alliances later we are where we are.

Oh and analog wastes really, really good spectrum.
Posted by sanenazok (3449 comments )
Link Flag
read the article again
to free up spectrum for other services. the reason the 700 mhz is use in the first place is that it's the one that travels farther and penetrates inside structures best. so it would make sense to use it for broadband internet or other yet unforseen commercial services. I'm guessing the benefit to mpaa is just incidental. cause they'll drm'ed the content and it won't be easyly copied. but the customer gets a much better quality picture and sound as well, not to say anything about things like teletext that exist in europe.
Posted by Pascoli (74 comments )
Link Flag
Paying for digital TV
OK, so the government is willing to help pay for converter boxes. So who or what helps to pay for satellite and cable access? I have both and it costs me almost $100 @ month. Who helps the poor with that?

I will bet that as soon as either/both is/are necessary for reception both services immediately raise their prices.
Posted by snoonie (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
WHY in the world would you have both SAT &#38; CABLE TV?? If you can afford to have both of them, you aint gonna meet their definition of POOR by a long shot!!
Posted by drwho (37 comments )
Link Flag
digital tv is available For FREE over the air waves and it still will be, even after the 2009 switch. all you need is a Good UHF antenna. the digital switch over should have happened 10 years ago!
Posted by thebigrod (3 comments )
Link Flag
clearing bandwith
Looks like they want the frequencies currently being used for free over the air tv, but what are they going to do with them? Military use? Free Porn? 24 Looney Tunes on every channel?
Posted by thedreaming (573 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Right, now the gov should be in content creation
and what kind of content do they choose to encourage?, with whose standard of decency?, with what kind of biased discovery channel, one that denies that global warming is not occuring, that sex ed should only teach don't want uncle sam in that business
Posted by Pascoli (74 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So Digital Is Good Enough For Consumers, But...
The thing that puzzles me about this story is that communications systems in the world have, or are, moving to digital -- cellular, WiFi, TV, but the police and fire want to use analog technology fom the 1950's that consumes a huge amount of bandwidth. What gives with this? Next thing you know they will be going back to vacuum tubes.
Posted by Stating (869 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why Do You Say This?
just wondering, Keith, what makes you say that the new emergency comm systems will be analog?

mark d.
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
Link Flag
been there -- done that
I have been using of the air digital and HD for about a year now. I have two accesses one through my DISH HD receiver and I have 6 months experience using a Samsung HDTV tuner feeding a recorder. I got the Samsung off Ebay and still paid too much. I see several problems. I also have an ATI HDWonder receiver card for my compute. I wont report on that as I am sill tying to get it to work. The following is based on my ability to receive good digital signals from the three networks and a marginal signal from FOX.

1. Those experienced with Dish, Direct or digital cable know that digital tuners are slow to respond. That irritates those of us that like to channel surf. Broadcast receivers are no different.
2. Broadcast signals have the same problems that satellite have; weather may cause the loss of signal. Because of the frequencies involved and if you are not in a fringe area the higher strength of the signals it is generally not as bad, but it still exists. I have a broom handy to knock the snow off my dish but that wont help my UHF antenna.
3. I live in Nevada amongst mountains and am serviced, in some cases, by repeaters. This good news  bad news. Analog signals are subject to multi-pathing or those not familiar with transmitted signals; signal can bounce off objects such as building or mountains causing distortion due to two signals arriving out of sync. Digital doesnt seem to have that problem, but I have a mountain between me and Reno where some of the digital transmitters are.
4. None of the repeaters in my area are yet transmitting digital. My possible concern is that repeaters are low power and if you dont get better than 50% on the receivers signal meter you get no picture. A 60% signal can experience drop outs, you know when you loose sound or see pixel drop out.
5. Even without the repeaters my understanding is that digital signals are all destined to be in the UHF range. UHF is more line of sight than VHF and may cause some reception problem. At this time two of the Reno stations are still using VHF frequencies. I dont know what that is all about. It may be the integration process.

In balance I think the plusses from digital will offset the minuses. Our NBC is broadcasting three digital channels, HD, Digital, and 24 hour weather. Capturing a digital signal on a vcr at the lowest resolution is often as good as an analog sign at the highest resolution.

Posted by Mackulla (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
digital tv's by 2009
Has the FCC or any other entity involved with this merger thought about the 16.1 million households that cannot afford the alleged $50.00 for this conversion? It is absolutely ludicris to assume that anyone can either go buy a new tv or subscribe to cable and or satellite broadcasting. What about the elderly folks who depend solely on social security? And further more about the single parent households that are lucky to even have a tv? The government is turning our free country into a monopoly. In short, I guess I don't agree with this change.
Posted by stethe244 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Stop Complaining
TVs were not free when they first arrived. Neither were cellphones, radios, or computers. They are still not free. Interesting enough, you said that some elderly depend on Social Security, and not their TVs! "Single parent households that are even lucky to have a tv?" If they are not "lucky" enough to have a tv nothing will change for them. Change is inevitable. GET USED TO IT!
Posted by bigbrichardson (1 comment )
Link Flag
Questions & Concerns; Junked TVs?
I live in a senior mobile home park. Many of my neighbors don't know about the digital switch. Some have questions that I can't answer:
- I watch TV from my antenna because I can't afford cable or satellite service.
-- Will my antenna still pick up the new digital signals?
-- If I buy the converter box(s), will I have to buy one for each TV, or can I hook one converter box to the antenna, and feed its signal to multiple TVs in my house through existing wires?
--- If I only need one box, attached to my antenna, will it allow us to watch different programs on different TVs at the same time?
- What about my VCRs? Will they still record my shows when I'm at church?
- If I need a separate converter for each TV and/or VCR, will the government give me a rebate on each of the converters, or just one.
-- If not, and we can only afford to buy one box for one TV (and no cable or satellite service), what will happen to all "dead" TVs and/or VCRs?
&gt;&gt;&gt; Landfills?
Posted by herby2 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Converter Boxes for Digital television
I have cable TV now and have to use a converter box for my HD TV. The cable company said I would have to rent another converter box for each TV that I use @ $6.95 each per month. Will I be able to purchase the converter boxes at a retail store instead and not have to rent.
Posted by Jan Richardson (1 comment )
Link Flag
Digital TV switch, set for Feb.2009
Live in S. Florida, whenever any hurricanes came thru &#38; lost utilities, was always able to use battery TV w/rabbit-ears. Once the digital switch goes thru won't be able to do that anymore.
Can remember b 4 cable, when only rabbit-ears &#38;
TV Antennas would be seen on roof-tops. What use to be "FREE" is now being charged outrageous fees, for basic cable &#38; satellite service. Expecting the day radio AM &#38; FM Stations, will no longer be "FREE" &#38; we'll have to pay to listen to our radios too. Corporate &#38; Government &#38; Neo-C0ns win-out again.
Posted by catwomyn56 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Digital TV
TV is not a requirement to live. Why should my hard earn tax dollars be used to pay for people to have TV? Let them save up and get it themselves, $50 is not a hardship. Don't drink and smoke for a day or two.
Posted by 999shadow (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Hi my names paul I was visiting this site about information for concerns for the new digital tv requirments for 2009 for my english essay and I was wondering do you agree with this or are you against everyone having to be converted to digital tv and all who own a standard anolog set have to buy a digital -to-anolog converter box in order to watch just basic channels? I was wondering what your views of that was also?Do you feel many other people are against this and technology is getting rather too advanced too fast? Thanks for help if you can respond
Posted by phunt0008 (1 comment )
Link Flag
TV Cards in Lieu of Leasing Converter
If the above is true about cable viewers needing nothing extra, why are cable providers planning to charge current analog cable customers for their digital tuners? I've heard that part of the new law requires cable co's to offer a mod to your TV (circuit card) that avoids renting the tuner. Anyone heard of this?
Posted by baristaman (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Hurricane Season
I live in South Florida and during hurricanes I rely on my 5" battery operated TV with an antenna to stay informed about the weather conditions during the storm and about the aftermath. What will happen to us now? Will the government allow analog signals to be used during natural disasters? If anyone has any info on this I would like to know.
Posted by miamikitten (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Hype of Hypes
People if you actually believe your cable company who actually ownes the rights to the broadcast freqs would leave you in black. Hmm, yet another good try and misleading information from the ever eager FCC to attain back the RF freqs from the cable industry. The only real fact in the 2009 hype is yes all networks have to be digital capable. Guess what though, what they fail to add in there is more than 90 percent of all broadcast are and have been for years. Your local cable company can change and have been converting the digital broadcast to analog for some time now. Thus to allow the elderly or low income households equal television viewing choices. Do not if you can not afford a new television set over this rediculas fight between the FCC and cable industry. The cable company has the means and the tools to make your old TV work perfectly with any future updates. Sit back and see your old TV work fine after Feb 2009 same as it did before.
Posted by cable168 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
digital TV FTW
Posted by thabassman (97 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Because of your advertising I requested your rebate cards.
Received them and purchased a converter for $49.95.
Good deal a new converter for $10 is great.
I purchased it early in hopes some of the channels were already
broadcasting in digital. Much to my surprise all the channels I receive
by analog were already broadcasting digital. PLUS I was getting 4 sometime
5 Channels in analog NOW I get 10 or 11 with 2 or 3 programs on each.

Here is what you are not telling the public all of which would have made me
switch sooner

1 Stations are already broadcasting in Digital
2 More than one program for each channel
3 Possibly reception of more channels than analog on the same antenna

Note: I only plugged the box into my TV (Did not touch my antenna)
I live in a rural area closest Station 60 miles most distant possibly 95 miles.

You want people to switch to digital Tell them $10 one time and many more channels.
and by the way you are already missing it.

Keith Martin
Posted by oldmanriverdownby (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

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