FAQ: What does the digital-TV switch actually mean?

It's not too early to think about how to ensure your television won't go dark when analog broadcasts shut down in 2009. Photos: Converting from analog to digital TV

WASHINGTON--If there's one message the government wants you to know about analog televisions going dark in early 2009, it's this: don't panic.

Federal officials say American households will have plenty of time to make sure their gadgets are ready for the congressionally mandated switch to all-digital broadcasts after February 17, 2009.

The key is knowing what your options are. As the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Federal Communications Commission stage back-to-back public events here this week, CNET News.com has compiled a list of questions and answers designed to ward off a DTV D-Day.

Q: Is it true if I subscribe to cable or satellite TV service, I can continue using that hand-me-down TV set from a few decades ago after the switchover?
That's right. Because if you're not even using your TV set's over-the-air tuner, there's no problem. You'll continue to receive all the channels you'd expect--including local broadcast offerings, assuming the service carried them in the first place and will continue to do so--without any need to buy new equipment. And naturally, those who receive Internet Protocol or IPTV--that is, channels shuttled over the Internet--through telephone carriers like AT&T and Verizon, won't have to make any changes either.

Q: I currently rely on free, over-the-air broadcasts and have no intention of ever subscribing to cable or satellite service. What are my options?
If you bought your TV recently, it may already include a digital tuner. As of March 2007, nearly all new televisions should include a built-in digital tuner.

If it's older, you're in the minority that has to do something before the deadline if you want to keep watching over-the-air TV. The simplest--and most expensive--option is to buy a new television equipped with a digital tuner. Many of them are already on the market, labeled as either SDTV (standard-definition television, which refers to an analog TV equipped with a built-in digital tuner), EDTV (enhanced-definition TV, which can display high-definition images but doesn't have enough resolution to do them justice) and HDTV (high-definition TVs, which are the most common type of digital television). (Click here to view CNET's TV buying guide.) You could also choose to purchase a DVD player or recorder equipped with a digital tuner.

The most economical route may be to buy an external digital-to-analog converter box, which is a digital tuner with an analog output that will let older TVs receive digital transmissions after the switch. Beginning January 1, 2008, the federal government plans to allow households to apply for up to two $40 vouchers to defray the cost of designated devices, which manufacturers project will cost $50 to $70 when they hit stores early next year.

Q: Free money from the government?
That's right, although of course you're paying for it yourself (along with the overhead a government bureaucracy to administer the program) in taxes. Regardless of how much money you make or even whether your household relies on free, over-the-air TV broadcasts, you'll be eligible to apply via phone, Web, fax or snail mail for the coupons during a first phase, in which 22.5 million coupons are expected to be available. The last day to make such requests is scheduled to be March 31, 2009. Coupons are set to expire three months after being issued.

If the first wave of coupons runs out, Congress could authorize an additional $450 million, creating up to 11,250,000 more vouchers. But those would be limited to households that claim they rely on over-the-air TV.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is overseeing the coupon program, plans to make more detailed instructions available later this year.

Q: So I can use my address and my friend's address and my mom's address to get a bunch of these coupons, with a market value of $80 for a pair? If I can scare up five mailing addresses somehow, that's $400 for one or two minutes of work, right?

Q: Dang! Is it legal to resell these vouchers on eBay?
If there's only one person behind five different addresses, it might be considered fraud. We know of no law saying you can't resell the vouchers.

Q: Are they requiring Social Security numbers or something as a check against abuse?
Nope. The Commerce Department chose not to, citing "privacy concerns."

Q: Did Congress really mean to make this so easy to abuse?
Because politicians wanted to respond to concerns from groups like Consumers Union, particularly about low-income and elderly households, they had to offer some kind of subsidy. Anytime the government hands tens of millions of people a new gadget (or a discounted one), short of sending out inspectors to make sure applicants really rely on broadcast TV, there's going to be some form of abuse and waste. Another way to do it might have been an income tax rebate.

Q: I'm an inmate in state prison in Cresson, Penn., and I don't get out for nine more years. Can I and 100 of my best friends here each get $80 in vouchers?
No. Although the Commerce Department mentions the prospect of prisoners (PDF) receiving Digital TV converters on its Web site, a spokesman said the U.S. Census definition of "household" does not include anyone who dwells in prisons and other "institutions," including college dormitories, nursing homes and group homes. That means those TV watchers are not eligible to apply for their own coupons.

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