All About: Digital TV

You might have heard some of the hoopla about the “Digital TV switchover” or the “analog cut-off”. A lot of people have heard about it, but haven’t heard any of the details. A lot of misinformation is floating around out there – hopefully, this post will help clear the air on many issues:

What’s going on? The United States Congress has passed a law that requires all television broadcasters to stop broadcasting analog signals on February 17, 2009. After that date, all television broadcasts must be in digital format.

Why did they do this? Because digital broadcasts are much more efficient than analog broadcasts. By converting over to digital broadcasting, television stations will be able to broadcast clearer images with much less bandwidth than is currently being used. And once the cut-off is complete, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will take some of the bandwidth currently used for analog broadcast channels and use it for the “public good” (e.g. radios and communications devices for police departments, fire departments, ambulance services, etc.). They will then auction the rest of the bandwidth to the highest bidder; this may result in more cellular services, city-wide wireless Internet, and other new high-tech services.

Who is affected by the cut-off? People that get their TV via over-the-air (OTA) antenna are the only people affected by the switchover. People that get their TV via cable or satellite are not affected by this in any way.

Will I have to buy a new TV? No. Major retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City will be offering “converter boxes” that connect to your older analog TV and allow you to receive digital TV broadcasts. These converter boxes are estimated to cost $50-$70 each. Because the federal government is expected to make billions off the sale of the soon-to-be-unused bandwidth, the feds are offering coupons worth $40 off the purchase of said converter. Each household may request up to 2 coupons from this site. If you have more than 2 TVs, you’ll have to eat the total cost of any additional converter boxes yourself.

What about my portable TV? Portable TVs will work after the conversion if they have a digital tuner, or if they have the capability to connect to a converter box via standard coax cable. Congress has required all television sets imported into the United States after March 1, 2007 to have digital tuners, so if the portable set was bought after that date, it’s likely to have a digital tuner. If the portable TV was purchased before that date, it might have a digital tuner, but it probably will not. You’ll have to check the portable TV and see if there’s an option to connect a converter box to it. Connecting a converter box to a portable TV kind of defeats the purpose of “portable”… but aside from buying a new portable TV, you don’t really have much of an option there.

How can I tell if my TV will work after the cutoff? Well, if it was purchased after March 1, 2007, it will probably have a digital tuner, so you don’t need to worry about anything. You might want to dig out the owner’s manual for the set or look for stickers on the TV that say the following:

Consumer Alert

This television receiver has only an analog broadcast tuner and will require a converter box after February 17, 2009, to receive over-the-air broadcasts with an antenna because of the Nation’s transition to digital broadcasting. Analog-only TVs should continue to work as before with cable and satellite TV services, gaming consoles, VCRs, DVD players, and similar products. For more information, call the Federal Communications Commission at 1-888-225-5322 (TTY: 1-888-835-5322) or visit the Commission’s digital television website at:

If you see this text in the manual, on the box, or on the set itself, you’ll need a converter box… but only if you get your TV by antenna. Again, cable and satellite customers don’t have to worry about this.

Will I have to buy an HDTV? No. Although HDTV is a type of digital broadcasting, not all digital broadcasting is HDTV. The “analog cutoff” refers only to the way the signals get to your TV via an antenna, not whether the signal is high definition or standard definition.

What about my VCR, DVR, DVD player or game console? All of these items are backwards compatible with both digital TVs and digital TV converter boxes.

What’s in all this for me? Well, aside from improved picture and sound, digital TV will allow most broadcast TV stations to offer “multicasting” – that is, additional channels of content. If your local NBC affiliate is channel 7, for instance, they might offer the standard NBC broadcast package on channel “7-1”, a 24-hour news and weather channel on channel “7-2”, a Spanish language version of their programming on channel “7-3” and replays of local sports games on channel “7-4”. For example, most of the major networks here in Charlotte offer currently weather on their “subchannels”. One affiliate offers a “Weather Channel knock off” while another simply broadcasts an image of the weather radar with National Weather Service radio providing the audio. Additionally, digital TV will also allow for “datacasting” (which is sometimes known as “enhanced TV”). Datacasting will allow broadcasters to include other material – such as graphics, video, audio, and text – with their broadcasts.

Also, the sale of the soon to be unused bandwidth might lead to some very interesting things, like new cell phone providers and services. Google has been long-rumored to be interested in starting a cellular service in the unused spectrum. Some areas might see all (or some) of the unused bandwidth converted over to wireless Internet. It’s too early to say what will happen exactly, but it’s sure to be interesting!

Where can I get more information? Check out the government’s official digital TV website here.


One Reply to “All About: Digital TV”

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