Is Your TV Already Obsolete?

When your TV suddenly stops working at midnight on February 17, 2009, blame Vice President Dick Cheney. Back in 2005, the Senate's vote on a spending bill that included $1.5 billion to help people buy digital-TV converter boxes was deadlocked 50-50, so Cheney flew back from the Middle East to cast the tiebreaker. We may never know for certain whether he really appreciated crystal-clear TV or was more interested in another provision of the bill - one that promoted drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In any case, he sealed the fate of over 100 million analog TVs.

It's a global thing. Countries like Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Finland, and Switzerland have already switched. Austria, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have switches underway. Most industrialized countries should be digital by 2015. In a truly historic move, the world will abandon a fundamental form of technology and upgrade to a new one. We can't agree to do anything about global warming, but by golly, we're not going to screw around with analog TV anymore.

Unfortunately, Americans are very confused about what's going to happen. In a recent Consumer Reports poll, 48% of those surveyed believed that only digital TVs will function after the switchover, and 58% believed all TVs will need a converter box. Neither is true. Even worse, 36% were entirely unaware of the transition. Ignorance may be bliss, but the Feds have budgeted $5 million for public education, and the FCC has asked for an additional $1.5 million. In comparison, the U.K. budgeted $400 million to educate its citizenry. That means either 1) Americans are 61 times smarter than the Brits, or 2) there will be 61 times more panic here when TVs show nothing but static.

So, because our government probably has better things to spend our money on, here are the facts, free of charge.

Most broadcasters will cease analog, over-the-air (OTA) transmissions at midnight on Tuesday, February 17, 2009. The bandwidth for the familiar TV channels (2 to 13, and 14 to 69) will be reallocated to both digital TV, and other non-TV uses. In particular, channels 2 - 51 will hold digital TV broadcasts, and channels 52-69 will be used for new wireless services from companies such as AT&T and Verizon.

There will be a few exceptions, such as some low-power broadcasts that will remain analog. If you get your TV via satellite or cable, you probably won't notice any difference, since those services don't use OTA signals. About 40 million households subscribe to analog cable; their providers can continue to distribute analog, or switch over to digital. Either way, service won't be interrupted. All told, about 85% of Americans live in households that use cable or satellite, so they shouldn't be dramatically affected by the switchover.

But the 15% of Americans who rely on OTA reception will be greatly affected - or afflicted. Of these, 78% have only analog TVs (with analog tuners) that won't receive digital transmissions. That's 23 million people without TV. They have several choices: 1) Buy a digital TV. By March 1, 2007, all TVs that are shipped interstate or imported and that receive OTA broadcasts are required to have a digital tuner. 2) Keep their old TV, abandon OTA, and buy into cable or satellite. 3) Keep their old TV and buy a converter box.

To help defray the cost of converter boxes, the government will send households up to two coupons worth $40 each toward the purchase of two boxes. But even though $1.5 billion is allocated for this, there probably won't be enough coupons to go around. So, apply for yours at dtv2009.gov. But they expire after 90 days, so don't get the coupons until you've located a source for boxes and you're ready to buy.

Incidentally, your old antenna will probably be okay for receiving digital TV. But if it isn't very good at handling UHF signals (channels 14 and up), you might need a new one. (Most DTV stations are on UHF channels.)

Clearly, 23 million people need to figure out a solution - or take up reading. But everyone else should double-check their readiness. What about the 40% of cable and satellite users whose analog TVs would go dark if the sub-scription were canceled or service disrupted? What about that TV in the spare bedroom? Or VCRs or DVD recorders with analog tuners that are used for recording OTA programs? Worse, what happens when a storm causes a power outage, and the emergency, battery-powered analog TV won't work?

Those are all good questions. At the stroke of midnight on February 17, 2009, we'll know the answers.

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