September 26, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

FAQ: What does the digital-TV switch actually mean?

WASHINGTON--If there's one message the government wants you to know about analog televisions going dark in early 2009, it's this: don't panic.

Federal officials say American households will have plenty of time to make sure their gadgets are ready for the congressionally mandated switch to all-digital broadcasts after February 17, 2009.

The key is knowing what your options are. As the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Federal Communications Commission stage back-to-back public events here this week, CNET has compiled a list of questions and answers designed to ward off a DTV D-Day.

Q: Is it true if I subscribe to cable or satellite TV service, I can continue using that hand-me-down TV set from a few decades ago after the switchover?
That's right. Because if you're not even using your TV set's over-the-air tuner, there's no problem. You'll continue to receive all the channels you'd expect--including local broadcast offerings, assuming the service carried them in the first place and will continue to do so--without any need to buy new equipment. And naturally, those who receive Internet Protocol or IPTV--that is, channels shuttled over the Internet--through telephone carriers like AT&T and Verizon, won't have to make any changes either.

Q: I currently rely on free, over-the-air broadcasts and have no intention of ever subscribing to cable or satellite service. What are my options?
If you bought your TV recently, it may already include a digital tuner. As of March 2007, nearly all new televisions should include a built-in digital tuner.

Digital TV

If it's older, you're in the minority that has to do something before the deadline if you want to keep watching over-the-air TV. The simplest--and most expensive--option is to buy a new television equipped with a digital tuner. Many of them are already on the market, labeled as either SDTV (standard-definition television, which refers to an analog TV equipped with a built-in digital tuner), EDTV (enhanced-definition TV, which can display high-definition images but doesn't have enough resolution to do them justice) and HDTV (high-definition TVs, which are the most common type of digital television). (Click here to view CNET's TV buying guide.) You could also choose to purchase a DVD player or recorder equipped with a digital tuner.

The most economical route may be to buy an external digital-to-analog converter box, which is a digital tuner with an analog output that will let older TVs receive digital transmissions after the switch. Beginning January 1, 2008, the federal government plans to allow households to apply for up to two $40 vouchers to defray the cost of designated devices, which manufacturers project will cost $50 to $70 when they hit stores early next year.

Q: Free money from the government?
That's right, although of course you're paying for it yourself (along with the overhead a government bureaucracy to administer the program) in taxes. Regardless of how much money you make or even whether your household relies on free, over-the-air TV broadcasts, you'll be eligible to apply via phone, Web, fax or snail mail for the coupons during a first phase, in which 22.5 million coupons are expected to be available. The last day to make such requests is scheduled to be March 31, 2009. Coupons are set to expire three months after being issued.

If the first wave of coupons runs out, Congress could authorize an additional $450 million, creating up to 11,250,000 more vouchers. But those would be limited to households that claim they rely on over-the-air TV.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is overseeing the coupon program, plans to make more detailed instructions available later this year.

Q: So I can use my address and my friend's address and my mom's address to get a bunch of these coupons, with a market value of $80 for a pair? If I can scare up five mailing addresses somehow, that's $400 for one or two minutes of work, right?

Q: Dang! Is it legal to resell these vouchers on eBay?
If there's only one person behind five different addresses, it might be considered fraud. We know of no law saying you can't resell the vouchers.

Q: Are they requiring Social Security numbers or something as a check against abuse?
Nope. The Commerce Department chose not to, citing "privacy concerns."

Q: Did Congress really mean to make this so easy to abuse?
Because politicians wanted to respond to concerns from groups like Consumers Union, particularly about low-income and elderly households, they had to offer some kind of subsidy. Anytime the government hands tens of millions of people a new gadget (or a discounted one), short of sending out inspectors to make sure applicants really rely on broadcast TV, there's going to be some form of abuse and waste. Another way to do it might have been an income tax rebate.

Q: I'm an inmate in state prison in Cresson, Penn., and I don't get out for nine more years. Can I and 100 of my best friends here each get $80 in vouchers?
No. Although the Commerce Department mentions the prospect of prisoners (PDF) receiving Digital TV converters on its Web site, a spokesman said the U.S. Census definition of "household" does not include anyone who dwells in prisons and other "institutions," including college dormitories, nursing homes and group homes. That means those TV watchers are not eligible to apply for their own coupons.

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I'm in no hurry
Since congress says cable operators must support analog tvs until 2012, I'm going to wait until there is enough (good) HD content available to it worth make purchasing a new television.

Five years might be long enough for that to happen.
Posted by rcrusoe (1305 comments )
Reply Link Flag
well you needn't be...
Since you're apparently getting your signal from a cable operator, this entire issue doesn't apply to you. Didn't you read the article?
Oh and um... HD content isn't the only reason to get a new TV set... fortunately for you, the converter box will downgrade all future digital signals (HD or otherwise) so you can continue to get the same inferior signal for as long as you can keep that old set running!
But you might want to upgrade that 8 track player in your car now... there has been some decent content released in the time since they quit producing those tapes.
Posted by skeptik (590 comments )
Link Flag
Its going to cost $20 extra a month from Dish, $15 from Directv
this year alone.
Posted by paulsecic (298 comments )
Link Flag
Editorial disguised as news
This is an editorial against the digitial to analog converter subsidies disguised as news. My guess is almost anybody reading will think the coupons are a needless waste but you should just report the boondangle and allow us -- the loyal readers -- to suggest that they're stupid, which they of course are.
Posted by michaelo1966 (159 comments )
Reply Link Flag
When Analog Goes Dark
I'm stuck. Right now everthing just works. My DVR's, My TV's all work with no set top boxes mucking up my remote controls and ability to record a show. When we go digital, I lose the convenience thanks to a lack of government standards on how the signals should be broadcast.

Right now, Analog just works. Digital is propriatary as heck and a PITA.
Posted by Renegade Knight (13748 comments )
Reply Link Flag
And you're how old? 60? Time to get with the program and get cable/satelite or get a digital capable DVR, like a Series3 TiVo.
Posted by theshoehorn (5 comments )
Link Flag
Been Ready Since 2000
I bought my 53" HDTV in fall of 2000. I live in a valley where there is no OTA so there is either the choice of satellite or cable (no IPTV availabe yet). I currently have cable and have done satellite both with HD receivers. And on top of that I have an HD tuner for one computer and a networked HD tuner. I've been ready for some time and ready for more channel to provide actual HD content instead of upverted SD. One thing people never mention about the transition is we're getting rid of that terrible Not The Same Color (NTSC) standard (kludge) which is a big win all the way around.

The technology keeps getting cheaper so this is much ado about nothing. In fact I recently bought a 720p camcorder for only $150.
Posted by Captain Bebops (260 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I know everyone is into dvd's and dvr's, but will
we be able to record programming off the tv with
our years old vcr's?
Posted by reinab (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
With a converter box
If you use a converter, you can record just fine on that old VCR. Problem is that you'll have to manually set the channel on the box, just like if you had a cable box.
Posted by dmine45 (10 comments )
Link Flag
What About Analog Cable?
Your answer to the first question was incomplete. I subscribe to cable, but receive an analog signal which I watch using my "cable ready" television. I don't have a cable box. What does the digital transition do to folks like me?
Posted by dwgsp (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Two answers
Answer 1: It means nothing to you, because the change applies only to over-the-air broadcasts.

Answer 2: Talk to your cable company. Sooner or later, you'll need a box from them, or an upgraded TV. When that happens depends not on this law, but on your cable provider.

It seems likely that once over-the-air broadcasts are all digital, cable companies will initially sell their service as a way to avoid having to buy a converter box. Sooner or later though, cable companies will start pulling support for analog channels (reasoning that you've already upgraded to a digital TV, and if you haven't they still have you as a captive audience). It's to their benefit to drop them, for much the same reasons -- they can offer more channels if they use that analog signal space for digital signals instead.
Posted by E B (267 comments )
Link Flag
You're good to 2012
The 2009 deadline is for OTA programming. Cable isn't required to change over until 2012.
Most cable systems already have digital to analog converters, so when the OTA change occurs, you won't see anything different since you've probably already been converted, you just didn't realize it.
Posted by dmine45 (10 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Ways to avoid abuse
In the application form, applicants must enter their TV model, brand, year and size. Sure enough they can make fake information (and when get inspected simply say it was sold). So there must be some sort of agreement to not sell the TV(s) for a period of time (6 months or 1 year at least). At least it can give enough time for inspectors.

My 2 cents.
Posted by usacascl (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
What about the antenna?
OK, just for those poor folks the writer calls the minority who haven't bought a new TV since March and aren't on cable or satellite. Do you have any numbers to support that minority statement?

You've indicated a requirement for a digital tuner but will that work with a current antenna in the attic? Also are the frequencies handed out for digital transmission as good as the one's the government is hijacking?
Posted by stlwest (72 comments )
Reply Link Flag
More antenna info
Try this web site. It contains a plethora of info re/ antennas. A tool is provided to show you where the TV transmission towers are in relation to your residence. <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by RIKARD-EL (3 comments )
Link Flag
Antenna might be OK
If it has UHF, maybe. Channels 2-7 are moving to UHF (I suppose in some areas where 8-13 are not used, they could go there), so 2-7 move to UHF. So if you don't get a strong signal now, those new UHF channels might not come in since the range is less. Right now nearly all digital TV is UHF, since 8-13 are still analog. We have a cabin 40 miles from the antennas and in a low-lying area, and with a roof UHF antenna and mast mounted booster we can only get the lowest digital UHF channel reliably (17).
Posted by Holly Klug (28 comments )
Link Flag
Audio flaws in digital TV
I don't understand why the audio is often so out of sync with many digital broadcasts and why obviously broadcasters do not seem to care. Maybe we need a FTC regulation to get things right. Compare digital and analog programming on PBS that are broadcast at the same time as standard def and HD. The sync on the standard def is fine and very much off on the HD.
Posted by KSman01 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Audio Flaws in DTV
I have seen some of this. It sometimes involves station engineers who are having trouble getting the DTV signal proceessing equipment to keep the audio and video on the same time. The audio goes thru faster than the video. Also my television does not have the latest ATSC tuner and the processsor gets hung up dealing with the video while letting the audio thru. By next year TVs with better tuners will be available to correct some of this problem.
Posted by davidhoffman (16 comments )
Link Flag
Converters out today, no need for Gov't subsidies!!!
Digital TV converters are out today and have been for some time, I
have a combo Digital/HD w DVD Upscaler (look on ebay, they're
not expensive), so there is no need for Government subsidies!!!

Just another example of why government does not work.

Ron Paul for President 2008! <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by libertyforall1776 (650 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Are you sure?
I do not seen any of these devices that receive over the air HDTV signals from an antenna, which is what you would need. What these devices do is allow a standard definition cable or VCR signal to work with an HDTV only television. What you would need with an ordinary TV in 2009 is an HDTV receiver or set top box. This is more of a down converter, rather than an up converter application.
Posted by Holly Klug (28 comments )
Link Flag
1)Cable providers are pushing this a hell of a lot harder than the government, so if you're to place 'blame', start with them.
2)How does the government HELPING people make them fail helping this situation?
3)Digital converters out today cost upwards of $300.
Posted by Tomcat Adam (272 comments )
Link Flag
Does this sound like big-brother again to me. I love how the government solves it problems. Send use a coupon lol.

1. Analog TV has always worked for me.
2.HD, SDTV, and EDTV is costly.
3.Along with fact it kills VCR I'm not interested.
4.The government is involved; this makes me leary.

Now, my statement is if ain't broke why fix it, but even worse is the government is getting in the deal.
I do realize I'll have to someday give up and buy a new TV. I consider it then, but not untill then.
Posted by krazyken44 (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The bow wasn't broken
So why use a rifle?
This isn't "big brother" in the slightest way; They aren't watching you, and the converter boxes don't record you nor your habits in any conceivable way.

1)Good. But it is slow, inefficient and like it or not, technology has to advance. When it comes to technological advancement, the greater majority of the public &gt; small minority.
Your statement is the same as saying "writing always worked for me, why use a typewriter?"

2)And getting exponentially cheaper. Much in the same way that the computer/TV you are using was extremely costly 10, 15 years ago.

3)lol wut? How does it kill vcr's? Converter -&gt; VCR on channel 3 or through AV -&gt; TV on Channel 3 or AV. Problem solved.
If you have a newer VCR that schedules recordings, most digital set top boxes can be programmed to switch the channel at specific times during the day.

4)All the government is doing is oversight; the switch itself is managed by individual stations.
Posted by Tomcat Adam (272 comments )
Link Flag
@ tomcat

You missed the point. Read the book again. It not the one standout fact about the book 1984, whch is the telescreen. The point he was making is that there is controll over information. The fact then the only info you have or can have access to is what you ar allowed. It not that they will be watching, its about them being able to alter facts and info about history, science and other subjects at will. They dictate the events of the past, rather than record them. Try ACTUALLY reading the book, rather than lean on common knowledge of the book. If you have read the book, take a class on comprehension.

Posted by hydrodev (4 comments )
Link Flag
...what if you have a seriously ancient TV (say, from the 1970s) and no money? I know a converter box would work, but since my TV doesn't have a remote control and only has 8 channel selectors, I'm a bit out of luck...
Posted by evilbill1782 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Channel 3
If it works with a VCR then it would work with a converter (ala placing the TV on channel 3).
Channels are changed on the converter itself.
Posted by Tomcat Adam (272 comments )
Link Flag
I got a better idea... about I simply stop watching broadcast television?

No, really - if left to my own devices, I rarely go near the thing for broadcast or cable/sat TV, instead using it as more of a monitor for DVD and computer-borne videos.

I can get local/nat'l/international news online. Sitcoms suck. Dramas (lately) suck. There's nothing really else worth watching on the thing outside of the occasional documentary.

Maybe then, the television industry might get the hint?

Posted by Penguinisto (5042 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You are, and always shall be in the very, very small minority that no broadcaster cares about, and never will care about.
Posted by Tomcat Adam (272 comments )
Link Flag
Let it Go!!
We all complain of the "Big Business" having us by the gonads, and they do! So let us "let Them Go" and return to reading and writing and Yes THINKING!!! AZLIZIRD
Posted by azlizird (4 comments )
Link Flag
Digital TV
[i]If there's one message the government wants you to know about analog televisions going dark in early 2009, it's this: don't panic.[/i]

What's this from, [i]Hitchhiker's Guide to Digital TV?[/i] :)
Posted by Jim Harmon (329 comments )
Reply Link Flag
battery operated TV's
I am frequently on the road or in places where electricity is not available. I use a battery operated television. After the switch, how will I be able to get a signal without electricity to run the box??
Posted by stephtrey (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Battery operated TV's
Those of us using TV's in our RV's that require the box will also need a dc/ac inverter. This means two more current consuming devices that will diminish the life of the batteries supplying the TV, Box and inverter. Does anybody know the current draw of these boxes?
Posted by exmoviddude (2 comments )
Link Flag
The Empire
The people get their subsidized bread and circuses and the government gets its $10-15 billion for more imperial wars. Win win!
Posted by solrosenberg (124 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not that easy to abuse
I'm not to crazy about the feds handing out coupons but hell
they gave away the digital frequencies FOR FREE to the networks,
at least they're throwing the little guys some crumbs. If anyone
is going to complain about the potential for abuse with the
vouchers, I'd want to hear him raise hell about those FREE
frequencies first. Why do the networks get a free pass while
everyone else has to bid for a spot in the spectrum?

Furthermore, exactly how does one abuse the vouchers? You
still have to buy a converter for 50-70 dollars. If you think you
end up ahead if you spend 10 dollars to get a 40 dollar discount
on something you don't, then you're an idiot and you deserve to
be parted from your money.

The only potential fraud is the converter box manufacturers
turning in coupons for fictitious converter sales. But that is
easily prevented.
Posted by tundraboy (494 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Sorry, missing word. . .
If you think you end up ahead if you spend 10 dollars to get a 40
dollar discount on something you don't NEED, then you're an idiot
and you deserve to be parted from your money.
Posted by tundraboy (494 comments )
Link Flag
$15B will pay for about 2 months of Iraq
Such a shame. At the time this plan was hatched, we were supposed to end up with "HDTV", not just "DTV".

But worse, this is a one-time spectrum auction that will net the government an estimated $15 billion. That sounds like a lot of money.

But Bush will have blown that amount of money in Iraq in the next two months. In other words, by the time the first converter coupons become available. What an abominable waste.

Vote for Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson, or anyone else that will get us out of Iraq and restore some fiscal discipline in Washington.
Posted by sam99999999 (139 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The Government.........
My personal OPINION on the subject would be that WE should have the choice of what type of TV we watch. The government should just stop telling us what to do. They think they can just get by controlling our lives.
Posted by dakotawbrown34 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
So what is the reason for the switch? Are you saying its because of censorship of news media by the government?
Posted by llededdc5 (1 comment )
Link Flag
Current usage of box?
Does anyone have an idea of how much current these boxes draw? Battery life in the camping environment is limited. Now we have to contend with the box, the inverter and the TV drawing current or buy a new TV!
Posted by exmoviddude (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
So far, the DC/NTIA has not changed its restrictions which prevent residents nursing and group homes from recieving vouchers. Hey-- the clock is ticking. Get moving!
Posted by bullstuff2009 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
TV is not a huge priority for me but there are a few shows I watch when in season. I can only get one channel (no antenna). I wonder if a digital TV or converter box would allow me to get my lone channel 13?
Posted by bb692 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Well, this is just another example of ur government screwing us. I don't care about what all the "pro digital" folks have said, talking down to people who have complained about this. Just because some of you can afford to buy the newest and best of everything is no reason to talk down to people. Please grow up. More than half of the country lives week to week. And yes, dakotabrown34 thank you. You nailed it right on the head. We SHOULD have a choice in the matter. Any time the government forces something down out throats, we should stop and ask, "what the hell is this all about?" THAT is what made us America, NOT just standing there and taking the abuse we have been.

For those who don't know the facts, the government has been trying to tax TV veiwing since it began and they have not een able to. Why? The nature of the broadcasting signal. With an aerial or rabbit ears, anybody can get the signal free. Well, guess what people? They won.

Now, not only do you have to pay taxes to watch TV, but you have to spend extra to (at the very least) covert to a digital signal. For those of us who ran out and bought a new HDTV, we spent TONS of money and guess what? Without ALSO paying even more for an HDTV receiver, the picture SUCKS! Man, I haven't seen motion blur, pixelation, and color distortion like that since the old days of worn out VHS tapes. So, now I have a 2 grand TV and the picture quality is far worse than my old CRT TV (which had a pretty sharp, clear picture, I might add). So, now, in order to get back to decent viewing I have to spend an extra $40+ for the HDTV package addition.
Posted by shutitup (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I have two tv's, neither has a digital tuner. One is in the living room, the other in my bedroom. Can I buy one converter box and use a splitter on the "out to tv" to connect to both tv's? The tv's are about 30 feet apart. if I carry the remote from room to room and the converter box gets the signal from the remote will it work? I live alone and never have both tv's on at the same time.
Posted by marblehead1 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag

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