Digital Television Transition: Start Preparing Now

Read this if you want to guarantee that your television will still work after the 2009 Superbowl. Even more importantly, you will also need to make sure your mothers, grandmothers, or aunties know the following since they will need your help to sort through this mess and are less likely to know what’s going on.

The United States is currently undergoing a transition from regular analog television signals to a digital format (DTV). This is often referred to as the DTV transition. With traditional analog technology, pictures and sounds are converted into waveform electrical signals for transmission through the air. In contrast, digital technology converts these pictures and sounds into a stream of digits consisting of zeros and ones for transmission. In other words, the digital signal is in the same format as video on your computer (MPEG-2).

Analog format is how television has been broadcast since it first started in the 1930’s. All televisions since that time have been built to receive and decode those analog signals.

Digital television format is the future. Digital transmission of television signals provides several advantages compared to analog transmission, such as enabling better quality picture and sound reception as well as using the radio spectrum more efficiently than analog transmission. This increased efficiency makes multicastingâ??where several digital television signals are transmitted in the same amount of spectrum necessary for one analog television signalâ??and HDTV services possible. A primary goal of the DTV transition is for the federal government to reclaim spectrum that broadcasters currently use to provide analog television signals. It is auctioning off that spectrum (likely to mobile phone providers) in January 2008 so there’s no turning back.

Here’s the rub. A television must be built to receive and decode the digital signal. Televisions built before 1998 were ONLY built to receive analog signals. Since then, only some televisions have been built with a digital tuner to receive digital signals. Televisions sold after April 2007 must have a digital tuner, although anecdotal stories abound regarding stores not meeting those obligations. If you bought a television since then, you’ll need to verify it has a digital tuner.

Today, most television stations throughout the country provide a digital broadcast signal in addition to their analog signal. Within hours of the 2009 Super Bowl the analog signals will turn off for good. That means televisions built without a digital television tuner will not be able to receive over the air television.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a web site that provides more information regarding the DTV transition.

It all depends on how you receive your television signal and your television set itself. There are three primary ways people receive television programming: over the air reception, cable, or satellite.

1) Over the air broadcasts: Don’t laugh because 19% of American households (20.8 million households) still rely on the rabbit ears. I’m part of this 19%.

This group will either need to buy a new television with a digital tuner or buy a digital to analog converter box. Estimated price of the converter box is $75.

The federal government is providing $40 coupons for these people to purchase the digital to analog converter box. Request a coupon: According to the coupon request form, TV converter boxes are not expected to be available in retail stores until late February or early March. You should sign up now; however you will not receive your coupon until after converter boxes are available in stores. The Coupon will expire 90 days after the date it is issued.

The federal department responsible for the program has a web site that provides more information regarding the coupon program, such as rules and the coupon request form.

2) Cable: No need to do anything. You’ll still receive your local and cable stations without fail. Just make sure you take care of those who are likely not to subscribe to cable (see above), such as your grandmother, aunties, and the neighborhood granny who looks after your home while you’re at work or school. A rallying cry should be “No grannies left behind.” 😉

Currently, federal law requires cable companies to carry broadcast stations when asked by the local broadcaster. Those must-carry provisions require cable companies to provide the broadcastersâ?? signals to their subscribers in substantially the same format as it was received from the broadcasters. That’s why cable subscribers should be unfazed by the DTV transition.

Note: If you don’t have digital cable, you will only receive your local stations, such as PBS, ABC, and NBC, in analog format.

3) Satellite: Satellite doesn’t have the same must-carry obligations as cable systems so you’re likely to continue receiving the same stations you did before the DTV transition.

Of course, if you bought a television that receives digital signals you can still receive over the air broadcasts. I’ve heard the HD picture quality from over the air broadcasts is actually better than is provided by digital cable. I haven’t tested it yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised since cable companies will want you to subscribe to their HD services.


  • January 2, 2008 – Digital to analog converter coupon program becomes available. * Coupons are now available.
  • February 17, 2009 – Last day for analog broadcasts.
  • February 18, 2009 – Analog broadcasts will be turned off. Televisions will need a digital tuner, digital-to-analog converter box, or cable/satellite subscription.

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