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FAQ: What the digital-TV switch actually means

The end of analog broadcasts is closer than you think. Here's the lowdown on what you need to know so you don't miss a show.

Editor's note: This is an updated version of an FAQ first published in September.

faq In a little over a year, some analog television sets will go dark in the U.S., but avid TV viewers shouldn't panic. Chances are, most Americans won't even notice.

February 17, 2009, is D-day for broadcasters to turn off their analog broadcasts and switch to digital. For most TV viewers, the switch will come and go without much notice. But for a small minority of the population, who still get their TV over the air using rabbit-ear antennas, some adjustments will have to be made.

As the the congressionally mandated deadline nears, confusion is mounting as to who will be affected and what can be done to make sure TV viewing isn't interrupted. Broadcasters have already begun airing public service announcements to educate the public on the change, but the government is starting to put pressure on broadcasters to increase their awareness campaigns.

So in case you missed a public service announcement that aired on your local TV station at 2 a.m., here's the lowdown on what you need to know to make sure you don't miss any episodes of your favorite shows.

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 the cable and satellite set top boxes do the digital conversion already. So 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.

Credit: Anne Broache
Here's a favorite demo that digital TV
converts like to show: contrast the
snowy picture generated by the good ol'
rabbit-ears antenna and analog tuner
on the left screen with the clearer
image on the right of the analog
TV outfitted with a converter box.

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 TV, 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 TV, 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. Since January 1, the federal government has been offering households two $40 vouchers to defray the cost of designated devices, which cost $50 to $70.

Q: What if I don't have a set-top box, but my cable plugs into my analog TV? What should I do?
You should check with your cable provider. But you might have to get a new TV or the converter box.

Q: So the government is actually giving me up to $80 for nothing?
That's right, although of course you're paying for it yourself (along with the overhead for 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.

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.

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, has more information on its Web site. The agency said earlier this month that more than 2 million vouchers had been requested since January 1.

Q: If I requested a voucher when will I get it?
According to the NTIA Web site, the agency will be sending out vouchers starting February 17, 2008.

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. On the official Web site for requesting a coupon, the Commerce Department says: "It is illegal to sell, duplicate or tamper with the coupon."

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 SDTV or HDTV, or somewhere in between.

Q: Have any specific models been certified for use with the coupons yet?
Yes. NTIA has certified products from several companies including, Digital Stream, Zenith, Magnavox, and Philco. Other companies including LG, Samsung, RCA, Broadcom and Echostar, are reportedly in the process of seeking certification.

For a full list of certified devices check out the NTIA Web site.

Q: Where can I get a converter?
NTIA has certified more than 100 consumer electronics retailers including Best Buy, Circuit City, Kmart, RadioShack, Sam's Club, Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart. A full list of retailers can be found on the Web site (PDF).

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 on 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 rest is currently being auctioned off by the FCC to companies, including the likes of Google. These companies are 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: 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's Marguerite Reardon and Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.