A Guide to Digital Converter Boxes

What are digital converter boxes, and why do you need one? The short explanation is that all full-power broadcast networks-the big ones that you currently receive on over-the-air signals with your rabbit ears or rooftop antenna-are required to switch over to all-digital programming by June 12, 2009. If you've got an older television with an analog tuner, known as an NTSC tuner, you will need a digital converter box to receive off-air broadcast signals after that date.

You don't need a digital converter box if you get TV through a cable or satellite service. Cable and satellite providers don't use public airwaves, so they can choose to provide a digital or an analog signal. If they choose to go all-digital, they will provide you with a new converter that functions like a digital converter box so that you can receive digital signals on an analog television.

Why Switch to Digital Signals?
With the explosion in communications devices, including cell phones and wireless Internet routers, the airwaves are getting very crowded. Analog broadcast signals are much less efficient than digital signals, meaning that one analog broadcast takes the same amount of broadcast bandwidth as 2 high-definition digital signals or 4 standard-definition digital signals.

Each television station in your area can decide what to do with the extra bandwidth. With a digital converter box, you'll be able to see any extra channels that are offered. Some local stations provide a 24-hour weather or news channel. In some markets, PBS offers three extra channels for kids, cooking and DIY programs and world events and documentaries.

All of the FCC licenses granted for digital television have been issued in the UHF band (channels 14 to 69), so that the VHF band can be freed up. The VHF channels will then be split up for a variety of purposes. Part of the broadcasting bandwidth is being auctioned to private wireless consumer companies, such as Verizon, to provide services such as wireless broadband. Another portion of broadcasting bandwidth is being redirected to public safety communications, such as police, fire safety and rescue communications.

When you start using a digital converter box, you'll notice a huge improvement in picture quality, since digital signals don't "ghost" or flicker like analog signals. If the digital signal is too weak, your digital converter box will alert you to the problem.

Getting a Digital Converter Box
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has put together a program called the Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program to help consumers pay for a digital converter box. Under this program, each household is entitled to two coupons worth $40 toward a qualifying digital converter box. You can get the coupons by visiting http://www.ntia.doc.gov/dtvcoupon/.

Digital converter boxes start at $40, so consumers have the choice of getting a basic model or applying the coupon toward the price of a more expensive one. The coupons cannot be combined to take $80 off a digital converter box.

The coupons are only valid for 90 days, so it is important to purchase the digital converter box shortly after receiving the coupon to take advantage of the program. The Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program runs from January 1, 2008, to July 31, 2009. It's a good idea to take advantage of the program now to avoid the last-minute rush to get converters.

Getting a Digital Signal
Any antenna that can receive UHF channels will work with a digital converter box. You don't need a new antenna or a so-called HDTV antenna to get a digital signal. If you're happy with your current UHF signal reception, then you can keep using the same antenna.

One thing to remember is that your current VHF channels (4, 5, 10 etc.) will now come to your home on UHF frequencies. Most older antennas are built to maximize VHF signals, so you'll need to be sure you've got a good UHF antenna. Visit Antennaweb at http://www.antennaweb.org/aw/welcome.aspx to learn more about the available channels in your area and the antenna you'll need to receive them.

Digital TV and HDTV
Not all digital TV signals are HDTV, and your digital converter box will not enable you to receive HDTV signals. A digital converter box is designed to make the SDTV signal sent out by broadcasters viewable on any television with an analog tuner.

High-definition television signals are also broadcast over-the-air, but you need a high-definition television to take advantage of the improved picture quality. If you have an analog television, neither a digital converter box nor an HDTV antenna will make it possible to view HD signals on your television. If you have a high-definition television that lacks a digital tuner, some digital converter boxes will let you get HDTV programming.

Check Your TV
To find out if you need a digital converter box, check the owners' manual that came with your TV. Check for the phrase "digital tuner" or "ATSC tuner." All new televisions manufactured for sale in the United States after March 1, 2007, are required to have built-in digital tuners. This rule does not apply to monitors and displays that lack tuners, so if you're watching TV on a monitor hooked up to a Clinton-era VCR, you'll need a digital converter box.

If you bought an HDTV after June 1, 2007, you shouldn't need a digital converter box. In addition, most high-end HDTVs sold after January 1, 2006, include a digital tuner as well as an NTSC tuner. If you have an older HDTV that's listed as "HDTV ready," you will need a digital converter box because these sets lack digital tuners even though they are capable of displaying HDTV images.

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