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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.

Q: Are there any limitations here? Can I use the coupons toward the cost of a digital TV?
The coupons may only be used for converter boxes certified for use by NTIA, and the agency placed a number of restrictions on what features they can employ. For instance, it's acceptable for the boxes to include an electronic program guide feature, equipment necessary for processing software upgrades, antenna inputs and video outputs. They also must meet certain energy efficiency and interference standards.

But the coupons can't be used toward digital TVs themselves or toward more "deluxe" devices that also contain, for instance, DVD-recording or playback capabilities.

Q: Does DTV mean HDTV?
Nope. As federal officials themselves note, digital television comes in many flavors. It can be low-resolution standard definition, or SDTV, or it can be high-resolution, or HDTV, or somewhere in between.

Q: Have any specific models been certified for use with the coupons yet?
Yes. NTIA confirmed that it gave the green light last week to two models produced by a Korea-headquartered company called Digital Stream. In a press release dated Friday, that firm estimated the price for each of those models would be about $70. (A more detailed spec sheet is posted at its Web site.) Several other companies, including LG, Samsung, RCA, Broadcom and Echostar, are reportedly in the process of seeking certification.

NTIA said it plans to include with the coupons it issues a final list of eligible devices, along with retailers near the household's ZIP code that sell some or all of them.

Q: When will the coupon-eligible boxes be available in stores?
The answer to that question remains a little murky. None is on the market yet, but NTIA has said retailers expect to have them by "early next year"--a statement that Best Buy, for one, echoes on its Web site.

Radio Shack vice president of merchandising Larry Harris told attendees at an NTIA public meeting this week that he expects all of the company's approximately 6,000 company-owned and franchise stores to carry coupon-eligible boxes as close to January 1 as they're available. He said the company hopes to begin outfitting its point-of-sale systems to work with the IBM-contracted coupon system within the next 30 days.

Q: What if the coupons run out?
Some consumer groups have argued that Congress should really be making double the number of coupons available to accommodate all of the some 70 million television sets they expect will need the converter boxes. Some Democrats have thrown support behind that idea.

Echoing statements he and other Republicans made earlier this year, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the ranking member of a House of Representatives telecommunications panel, said this week that he doubts the coupons will run out. He told NTIA public meeting attendees that about 23 million are expected to be requested, based on the number of consumers who rely on over-the-air television.

If there aren't enough, he added, "I'm sure there will be a bipartisan effort to make sure the funds are there, but I think we'll be OK."

Q: How can I tell whether my TV is currently able to receive digital signals?
Check your owner's manual or the TV set itself for indication that it contains either an integrated HDTV tuner or an Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) tuner, which refers to the American digital-TV standard. If you can't track down the manual in paper form, try searching for your TV's make and model number at the manufacturer's Web site.

A TV designated "HD-ready" or "HDTV monitor," by contrast, does not have a built-in ATSC tuner, which means you must supplement it with a converter box or subscribe to cable or satellite.

The newer your TV is, the greater the chance that it's already primed for the switch. If it's older than a 1998 model, when TV manufacturers first began offering a limited quantity of TVs with integrated digital tuners, it likely needs a converter box. An uptick in the number of TVs equipped with digital tuners began in 2004.

Q: Remind me again--why are we even making this shift?
The U.S. government has actually been attempting to clear off the analog TV spectrum for many years to make the prime airwaves available for public safety responders and for mobile broadband projects. A portion of the vacant spectrum will automatically be set aside for use by emergency broadcasters. The FCC plans in January to start auctioning off the rest to companies, including the likes of Google, eager to take advantage of the spectrum's inherent physical properties, which allow signals to travel farther and penetrate walls.

All told, the auction is expected to generate between $10 billion and $15 billion to offset the government's deficit.

Q: Then who's to say this whole process won't be delayed again?
So far, all we have to go by is the word of Bush administration officials presiding over the plan, and they say they're determined for it to go off without a hitch. "It is critically important for a host of public policy reasons, and that's why it's so important that we get it done," Commerce Department Assistant Secretary John Kneuer told about a hundred people gathered for a digital-television expo (PDF) at the agency's downtown Washington headquarters this week.

Q: What's in this for me as a TV watcher?
Digital television delivers clearer pictures (meaning less-snowy versions of your favorite broadcast TV shows) and sharper sound than its analog counterpart. It also allows broadcasters to do "multicasting" of various channels at the same time--say, weather on one channel, a soap opera on another, and news on a third. According to the National Association of Broadcasters, more than 1,600 television stations already offer digital-broadcasting streams.

CNET News.com's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.