How to handle the digital TV transition

How to handle the digital TV transition
by Will Whitehorn


For millions of households, the familiar glow of the TV may fade to black Feb. 17 as broadcasters begin transmitting digital rather than analog signals, per a long-anticipated Federal Communications Commission mandate. Analog TVs lacking the necessary digital-to-analog converter and TVs without a built-in digital turner will fail to function.

The transition to digital, which aims to improve broadcast quality and free up spectrum space for emergency communications, is one of the biggest changes in TV technology history, and it hasn't been without its hiccups. The FCC estimates 34.9 million of the nation's 303.1 million television sets remained unready for the switch, based on a Nielsen report released in mid-October. "There's no precedent for this," says Tom Haydon, Oregon Public Broadcasting Station's digital transition coordinator. "There's never been an instance where an outside force has come in and rendered a technology obsolete."

The impending change has consumers asking a lot of questions. Haydon says his station's DTV call center has received nearly 20,000 inquiries, mainly from the elderly, about digital TV since opening more than a year ago and expects about 50,000 more calls the week of the transition. Television retailers and repairmen are also fielding questions from concerned consumers, which has some worried that people are being sold equipment they don't need.

In June, the nonprofit advocacy group National Consumers League found several TV retailers in the Washington, D.C., area were giving inaccurate information regarding the switchover. As recent as September, the FCC reported it had assessed thousands of TV retailers' employee DTV training programs and fined stores more than $4.74 million for not putting label warnings on analog TVs for sale.

But a recent undercover Angie's List Magazine survey suggests the FCC's ramped-up education efforts have helped clear up confusion. We called dozens of retailers and technicians on the List who were selected at random. All of them provided us with reliable advice about digital TV.

William Herron, owner of highly rated Venus Electronics in Seminole, Fla., says only customers who still have analog TVs - not those with cable television or satellite service - will be affected. "People still using rabbit ears or antennae, that's who it's primarily going to affect," Herron says. "Some newer televisions have digital tuners, but not all of them."

Almost every TV set made before 1998 was a traditional analog. Only TVs manufactured after March 2007 are guaranteed to work on Feb. 17 because they have a built-in, integrated converter, according to employees at Alltronics, a highly rated electronic repair company in Hillsboro, Ore. Digital monitors - often labeled "digital ready" - produced before 2007 may not have a digital tuner and will require a converter different than the DTV digital-to-analog box to continue receiving free over-the-air signals. That set-top box can be purchased at most electronic stores.

Retailers we interviewed suggest consumers make sure they are receiving digital transmissions before the February deadline. Herron says people can determine what type of TV they have by checking the back of the set, or by consulting the owner's manual or manufacturer website.

If it says the device is NTSC, which stands for National Television System Committee, the TV is analog. If it's labeled ATSC for Advanced Television Systems Committee, it's digital and doesn't require an external converter.

For those who need to buy the DTV converter box, the installation is relatively easy, according to repairmen we interviewed. Don Blackburn, owner of highly rated Don's TV in Charlotte, N.C., says he's installed a few devices for customers, but that it's an operation most can perform by themselves.

The converter boxes cost between $50 and $80 and can be bought at nearly any electronics retailer and some repair shops. Buyers can go online to find $40 coupons - two per household - at dtv.gov or call 1-888-DTV-2009. The coupons expire 90 days after receipt, and March 31 is the last day people can apply for them. After the discount, the cost could be as low as $10 per box, according to A-rated Bachelorz's Electric in Portland, Ore.

That's good news for April and Morton Middleman, a retired couple residing in Hollywood, Fla. The Middlemans recently purchased a pair of converter boxes, paying about $30 per box after the coupons. April says she worries many others will be on the outside looking in following the conversion. "I mentioned it to my 80-year-old neighbor, and she says she doesn't need a converter because she only watches the news," April says. "I tried to tell her she's going to be surprised come February."


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