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Digital TV countdown 

For most, it should be painless.

THE BLACK BOX:  Converter boxes aren't that expensive, and the government will help.
  • THE BLACK BOX: Converter boxes aren't that expensive, and the government will help.

John Lennon once said, “It's fear of the unknown. The unknown is what it is. And to be frightened of it is what sends everybody scurrying around chasing dreams, illusions, wars, peace, love, hate, all that.”

Lennon forgot to say digital-to-analog converter boxes. The looming switch to digital television broadcasting has Luddites among us terrified, and even the tech-savvy somewhat confused. Will my TV still work? What if I have a satellite dish? Will I need a converter box? When the clock strikes midnight on Feb. 17, will my television turn into a pumpkin?

Public service announcements from the cable companies and news reports on the coming conversion do little to alleviate the confusion. Maybe it's because we're not really paying attention or possibly it's because February seems so far away. But it will be here one day and lest you go without the ol' boob tube, you better know what to do.

For most, the switch will be a painless procedure. Basically it breaks down like this: if you have cable, satellite, or a TV with a digital tuner, you don't have to do anything. If you still use an antenna, you're going to have to get a small box that will convert the new digital signal to an analog one.

“There's a big misconception out there as to what people need,” says Rob Wooten, manager of the Radio Shack on Rodney Parham in Little Rock. He says they've been getting a lot of calls from people who are concerned about the switch.

“If people aren't very tech-savvy, then you kind of have to demystify it for them. But basically, if you have cable or satellite, then you don't need anything. It's only for people who have an antenna.”

Here's what's happening: Since 1996, the FCC and Congress have been moving toward digital broadcasting. Legislators decided that Feb.17, 2009, would be the last day television stations could broadcast analog signals. So after that day, the signal your antenna picks up will switch from analog to digital. If you have an analog TV set (every TV set made before 1998), then you won't be able to watch it without a digital-to-analog converter box. Most TVs made after 2004 have built-in digital tuners and won't require any additional hardware, even if you're using an antenna. Between 1998 and 2004, a small percentage of projection TVs were made with built-in digital tuners (these were usually 42 inches in diameter or larger). If you do need to get a converter, the federal government is offering each household two $40 coupons to help with the cost (you can find a box for about $50-$60). For a coupon, go to www.dtv2009.gov.

Why make the switch? Joe Molinaro, executive director of the Arkansas Cable Telecommunications Association, says digital signals use a lot less bandwidth than analog and that space can now be used for other things.

“It takes six megahertz to send an analog signal and it maybe takes half of one to send a digital signal. So freeing up that space makes the signal capacity available to first-responders, local police and fire departments. In the case of an emergency, we wouldn't have to worry about the signal capacity not being there to handle it. So, it's just a better, more efficient way of providing a signal,” Molinaro says.

Also, digital signals offer higher quality picture and sound. Stations will be able to offer a variety of programs at once, since they'll have more space to operate. Instead of just having channel 9, you'll have channel 9.1, 9.2, 9.3, etc.

But there will be some problems. According to the National Association of Broadcasters the elderly, low-income families and minorities will be “disproportionately affected by the transition.” Molinaro says efforts are being made to reach out to those specific populations.

Wooten says there will be some technical glitches as well.

“With analog, you didn't have to have a very strong signal and you could still pick it up, it just might not be as clear. With digital, it's going to have to be pretty strong or the picture's just going to go in and out,” Wooten says.

Bottom Line: If you've got a digital TV, cable or satellite you're fine. If you've got an antenna and an analog TV, just go get a converter box.

Don't be afraid. Go to www.dtv.gov for more information.

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