September 26, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
FAQ: What does the digital-TV switch actually mean?
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Q: Are there any limitations here? Can I use the coupons toward the cost of a digital TV?
The coupons may only be used for converter boxes certified for use by NTIA, and the agency placed a number of restrictions on what features they can employ. For instance, it's acceptable for the boxes to include an electronic program guide feature, equipment necessary for processing software upgrades, antenna inputs and video outputs. They also must meet certain energy efficiency and interference standards.
But the coupons can't be used toward digital TVs themselves or toward more "deluxe" devices that also contain, for instance, DVD-recording or playback capabilities.
Q: Does DTV mean HDTV?
Nope. As federal officials themselves note, digital television comes in many flavors. It can be low-resolution standard definition, or SDTV, or it can be high-resolution, or HDTV, or somewhere in between.
Q: Have any specific models been certified for use with the coupons yet?
Yes. NTIA confirmed that it gave the green light last week to two models produced by a Korea-headquartered company called Digital Stream. In a press release dated Friday, that firm estimated the price for each of those models would be about $70. (A more detailed spec sheet is posted at its Web site.) Several other companies, including LG, Samsung, RCA, Broadcom and Echostar, are reportedly in the process of seeking certification.
NTIA said it plans to include with the coupons it issues a final list of eligible devices, along with retailers near the household's ZIP code that sell some or all of them.
Q: When will the coupon-eligible boxes be available in stores?
The answer to that question remains a little murky. None is on the market yet, but NTIA has said retailers expect to have them by "early next year"--a statement that Best Buy, for one, echoes on its Web site.
Radio Shack vice president of merchandising Larry Harris told attendees at an NTIA public meeting this week that he expects all of the company's approximately 6,000 company-owned and franchise stores to carry coupon-eligible boxes as close to January 1 as they're available. He said the company hopes to begin outfitting its point-of-sale systems to work with the IBM-contracted coupon system within the next 30 days.
Q: What if the coupons run out?
Some consumer groups have argued that Congress should really be making double the number of coupons available to accommodate all of the some 70 million television sets they expect will need the converter boxes. Some Democrats have thrown support behind that idea.
Echoing statements he and other Republicans made earlier this year, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the ranking member of a House of Representatives telecommunications panel, said this week that he doubts the coupons will run out. He told NTIA public meeting attendees that about 23 million are expected to be requested, based on the number of consumers who rely on over-the-air television.
If there aren't enough, he added, "I'm sure there will be a bipartisan effort to make sure the funds are there, but I think we'll be OK."
Q: How can I tell whether my TV is currently able to receive digital signals?
Check your owner's manual or the TV set itself for indication that it contains either an integrated HDTV tuner or an Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) tuner, which refers to the American digital-TV standard. If you can't track down the manual in paper form, try searching for your TV's make and model number at the manufacturer's Web site.
A TV designated "HD-ready" or "HDTV monitor," by contrast, does not have a built-in ATSC tuner, which means you must supplement it with a converter box or subscribe to cable or satellite.
The newer your TV is, the greater the chance that it's already primed for the switch. If it's older than a 1998 model, when TV manufacturers first began offering a limited quantity of TVs with integrated digital tuners, it likely needs a converter box. An uptick in the number of TVs equipped with digital tuners began in 2004.
Q: Remind me again--why are we even making this shift?
The U.S. government has actually been attempting to clear off the analog TV spectrum for many years to make the prime airwaves available for public safety responders and for mobile broadband projects. A portion of the vacant spectrum will automatically be set aside for use by emergency broadcasters. The FCC plans in January to start auctioning off the rest to companies, including the likes of Google, eager to take advantage of the spectrum's inherent physical properties, which allow signals to travel farther and penetrate walls.
All told, the auction is expected to generate between $10 billion and $15 billion to offset the government's deficit.
Q: Then who's to say this whole process won't be delayed again?
So far, all we have to go by is the word of Bush administration officials presiding over the plan, and they say they're determined for it to go off without a hitch. "It is critically important for a host of public policy reasons, and that's why it's so important that we get it done," Commerce Department Assistant Secretary John Kneuer told about a hundred people gathered for a digital-television expo (PDF) at the agency's downtown Washington headquarters this week.
Q: What's in this for me as a TV watcher?
Digital television delivers clearer pictures (meaning less-snowy versions of your favorite broadcast TV shows) and sharper sound than its analog counterpart. It also allows broadcasters to do "multicasting" of various channels at the same time--say, weather on one channel, a soap opera on another, and news on a third. According to the National Association of Broadcasters, more than 1,600 television stations already offer digital-broadcasting streams.
CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.
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