Digital TV transition is one year away

Summary:

The cutoff date for analog broadcast television is a year away. Here's how it will affect you, whether you get your TV signal from cable, a satellite dish, or an antenna.

by Robert Heron, PC Magazine

Unless Congress has a(nother) change of heart, February 17, 2009 marks the cutoff date for analog (NTSC) broadcast television here in the United States. On that date, all analog televisions that utilize an antenna to receive television programming will effectively cease to work as there will be no analog TV signals left to tune. However, most people don't use an antenna to receive television programming, and viewing digital television (DTV) doesn't necessarily require the purchase of a new TV. The transition to a 100% digital television broadcasting system is all but inevitable, and the good news is that few people will even notice when nearly 80 years of analog television broadcasting service comes to an end early next year.

Most of us receive network television programming from cable or satellite television providers, and in most cases these providers will make the digital television transition a transparent (and painless) one for its customers. Satellite television subscribers will be the least impacted by the transition to digital terrestrial broadcasting as absolutely nothing will change from the perspective of the subscriber. Satellite subscribers will continue to receive programming from the "closed" system of signals that are transmitted from orbiting satellites to compatible dish-style antennas and receiver boxes. Satellite subscribers can continue to utilize whatever TV they wish as the satellite receiver hardware will handle the decoding of the incoming signal as well as provide the necessary A/V (audio/video) connections for the TV.

Cable television subscribers will find the transition to digital (terrestrial) broadcasting almost as uneventful as their satellite counterparts. Digital cable subscribers that utilize set-top box or CableCARD hardware to tune channels are also part of a closed video delivery system that has nothing to do with analog or digital terrestrial television broadcasting. And like a satellite receiver, digital cable boxes can be connected to any type of television including the old school standard definition tube TVs as well as the latest high-definition flat-panel displays. For cable subscribers who have opted for a basic plan that doesn't require the use of a set-top box, chances are that cable providers will continue to support these "analog only" customers for the foreseeable future—cable providers are not required to transition to a fully digital video system.

People who connect their TVs to a nearby antenna in order to receive television programming will need a digital tuner in order to continue receiving terrestrial television signals after February 17th, 2009. If the TV in question is relatively new, it may already incorporate the necessary digital tuner; check the TV's tuner specs for something called "ATSC" (the digital terrestrial broadcast tuner). If the TV is an older model or it is an HDTV that is described as "HD-Ready" or as an "HD Monitor." then a digital tuner set-top box will be needed to view digital terrestrial broadcasting. To help offset the cost of upgrading TVs with digital television (DTV) tuners, Congress created the TV Converter Box Coupon Program that provides up to two $40 coupons per household that can be applied to the purchase price of eligible DTV converter boxes.

With all of the discussions about the upcoming transition to digital television (DTV), it's worth reminding everyone that DTV is not the same thing as HDTV. The DTV system encompasses standard and high-definition video formats; whereas HDTV (the video format) represents the highest-resolution video formats of the DTV system. You could have a situation where a new digital TV tuner box is connected to an old tube TV, and the digital tuner is receiving a local HD channel. In this case, the video signal is HD, the tuner sees it as HD, the TV station tells you the channel is being broadcast in HD, but the video signal is converted and sent to the old TV in the standard-definition format—as it should be for a screen that provides standard-definition resolution. For a true HD experience—regardless of whether you are a cable/satellite subscriber or you receive it over-the-air using a DTV tuner—everything has to be HD-compatible, including the video material, the video cables connecting the gear, and the display itself.

Here are some useful resources for learning more about the DTV transition:

* www.dtv2009.gov: Main converter box site/main DTV transition site
* www.dtvtransition.org: DTV Transition Coalition Web site (has a handy DTV quiz that can help you determine how ready you are for the transition.)
* www.antennaweb.org: A Great place to find out about what local DTV channels are available and how to receive them (including info about selecting an appropriate antenna).

article originally published at http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1759,2265444,00.asp.

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