Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Switch to All Digital Broadcasting Is Coming, Will My TV Explode?

No, and it won't stop working either, although you might experience some slight discomfort.

I've been getting asked about the switchover a lot lately, and it really points out how little people understand about the change, and how poorly the message is being disseminated.

The whole thing is a bit convoluted, but in a nutshell, on February 17th, 2009 all full-power TV stations have to turn off their analog signal and begin broadcasting in digital only. In theory,this will only affect people who currently get their TV reception via antenna, and they will be able to add a digital converter box to tune in the new digital signals.

Kind of.

See, here's where it gets convoluted. Notice the wording "full-power TV stations". There are also low-power stations out there that will not be switching over to digital. These are community access and educational channels. Here's the FCC's description of Low-Power, Class A and TV Translator stations.

There's also Canadian TV that's received in some of the border states. That won't be changing over to digital just yet either.

So, people who depend on antenna service, and are planning on getting a digital converter box, should look for one that supports "Analog Pass-Through". This will allow you to use the converter to tune in digital broadcasts, or use the TV's tuner to continue receiving analog broadcasts.

The digital changeover may also affect cable subscribers, depending on the system you subscribe to, and here's why:

Right now most cable companies are sending out both digital and analog signals. If you don't have a cable box and plug your cable directly into an analog set, the TV's NTSC (analog) tuner searches out only the analog signals your cable provider is sending you, and displays them on the proper channel. You need a set top box to receive the digital channels.

If you plug that same cable directly into a new set with an NTSC/ATSC/QAM tuner, you'll get all sorts of channels you didn't know about.That's because the cable companies have already begun the switchover to digital.The NTSC/ATSC/QAM tuners in the new sets allow you to tune in both the analog and the digital channels, including some High Def programming, without a set top box. You won't get ESPN or any of the other high end channels in High Def, but you will get all your local affiliates.

QAM tuners are to cable what ATSC tuners are to antenna, they both allow you to receive digital signals. Here's a great explanation of QAM tuners.

Because the analog channels take up more bandwidth than digital, the cable companies need to dump them so that they will be able to send us more digital (both Standard and High Definition) channels. They're not under a mandate to switch, but they will. The only requirement the FCC has imposed on them is that they have to support customers with analog sets for 3 years. Here's the FCC's take on it.

The way they'll do this is to require analog users to purchase or rent a cable version of the digital converter. They've already begun ordering them from suppliers and are well on their way to turning off the analog channels. Check out the story here.

All right, here's the facts you need to know:

Analog TV sets that use an antenna for reception will continue to work after the changeover with a digital converter box. They run about $50 or $60 a piece and you can get two $40 coupons per household to be used towards the purchase at Be sure to get a converter box that supports analog pass-through.

Analog TV sets that are hooked up to a cable box will continue to work after the changeover with no issues.

Analog TV sets that are hooked up to cable without a box may continue to work for a while, but will all require some kind of box, sooner rather than later.

Digital TV sets with an antenna will continue to work . They should have an NTSC/ATSC (analog/digital) tuner so that you will be able to pick up any legacy analog stations as well as the new digital ones.

Digital TV sets with cable, with or without a box, will continue to work . To work without a box the set must have an NTSC/ATSC/QAM tuner.

If you're gonna make the jump to a new TV, always look for a set with an NTSC/ATSC/QAM tuner. It will give you the most flexibility. Beware of digital monitors, as they don't have any kind of tuner. Be sure to check out our HDTV buying guide on for more info before you make a purchase.

Bear in mind that not all digital broadcasts are high def. Digital comes in 2 flavors, Standard Definition and High definition. The term digital is only a reference to how the signal is broadcast, not the picture quality, although standard definition is a cleaner signal than analog and will look better.

Also bear in mind that digital signals do not "travel" as well as analog signals, so antenna reception may not be good in your area, even if you were getting great reception of analog signals in the past.

Told you it was convoluted.

The only real casualty of the digital conversion is going to be the small battery operated TV's with analog tuners. Most people buy these little cheapos for power failures or camping, and there are no plans for a battery operated converter box. The FCC suggests getting a generator, I swear. You can read it here.

Stupid advice. If I had a generator, I wouldn't use it to power a converter box and a 5" TV, I'd just switch on one of my LCD's hooked up to rabbit ears. Hopefully, someone will tap into this niche market and release an affordable battery operated LCD with a digital tuner. There's a few out there now, but they're all around $200. It would be nice if the portable DVD player manufacturers would begin incorporating tuners into their products. My Dad used to really depend on his during Florida's hurricane season. Sometimes he would be without power for days.

So, you're either going to need a box or a new TV pretty much any way you look at it.

Here's how I plan to approach it. I have cable, both with and without boxes. I've already replaced two analog TV's with LCD's that have NTSC/ATSC/QAM tuners, so they're all set. I won't replace the rest of my sets unless/until they die. For now they'll work fine on cable, and if that changes I plan on using a cable box. There needs to be better and cheaper models in the 20" and below range before I jettison the 20" and 14" flat tube analog TV's in our spare bedroom and workshop. Talk about missing out on a market.

I'm also going to purchase at least 1 digital converter through the coupon program. Sometimes the 14" comes outside with us. If the Sox are on Fox, an antenna will do the trick. It will also come in handy if the cable goes out.

Here's a decent review of whats available now for converters. So far I like the DTVPal the best. It has analog pass-through and a nice program guide, and it's a little sleeker in design than some of the others. I'm going to hold off for a while though, as more will be coming out and the coupons are a 1 shot deal and only good for 90 days.


Anonymous said...

The real casualties of this "electronics industry stimulus package" are the "tv sound" radios--and the people who own them. For the poorest of the poor, the partially sighted, those living in overcrowded conditions, those who can listen but not look at work, this dirty trick severs their only lifeline to mainstream American culture--primetime tv.

You can hear the contempt and callousness as bureaucrats dismiss their needs as "insignicant".

Shame! a bare bones "tv sound only" receiver should be distributed to every "tv sound" and handheld tv owner, and the manufacturers, importers and distributors of tv sets should pay for it! They reaped a windfall bonanza as a result of the changeover.

berryjooks said...

You are correct, there aren't any DTV band radios as yet, and the old ones are about to stop functioning.

The NTIA did not consider people with limited vision in their requirements for digital converter boxes either, as there's no provision for speech out for the menu system.

There's also very few battery operated DTV's, and what's out there isn't very affordable. This will impact people who depend on battery operated portables for information during storms or disaster.

The manufacturers are callous to our needs, and continue to focus on gigundo sets that very few can afford, totally ignoring what they consider a much less profitable product.