red tulips | copyright Jill J. Jensen

everything you need to know to make the analog-to-digital transition


— Originally posted 09.01.07 —

Just in case you haven't heard: your TV may go dark in the middle of February 2009.


No kidding.

Especially if you get your signal over-the-air via rabbit ears or some kind of outdoor antenna. That's an analog signal flying around in the ether, and in these days of digital everything, analog technology is going the way of the dinosaurs.

On February 17, 2009, to be precise.

The nation's broadcasters, who use our public airwaves, have been converting their infrastructure to digital technology for more than ten years. That's where HD (high-definition) TV came from, although HD doesn't require digital signals in order to function. But why bother amping up the picture quality in an inherently muddy medium? That fueled the push to digital — and most HD stuff is digital. Digital also offers more ways to split the frequencies available — hence, all those .1, .2, .3, etc., channel numbers, with additional and different programming.

If you're in an urban area and subscribe to cable TV, you may have already faced a sort of "digital transition" when your cable provider's infrastructure went digital and the company switched out your set-top box (with or without a DV recorder, TiVO, or the like). At that point, you may even have purchased a new "digital," "HD," or "digital-ready" (probably widescreen and flat-panel) television set to go with the splashy new images. Groan. Even if you didn't, the cable company's magic black box took care of the analog-to-digital conversion and produced a picture on any TV set where it was connected. Whew! So far so good.

But if you live in the "empty" spaces outside of urban areas, don't have access to cable, aren't wired into a satellite-TV service, can't afford to reconfigure all the TV sets (and video recording devices like VCRs) in your house, or just don't want to bother with all this technology stuff, you face the prospect of being seriously out of the loop when the analog signal is shut off. Don't believe me? See the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) DTV transition website. Analog TV is going away. Period.

For real.

Right now, the FCC is preparing for what's called a "spectrum auction," which will take place when all the TV broadcasters in the nation vacate the analog frequencies (spectrum) currently used for delivering over-the-air broadcast programming to our homes. The FCC hopes to raise billions of dollars for the government — and improve the communication capacities of first responders, police, fire, ambulance, and other government agencies. Of course, cell phone providers want a batch of the new frequencies to spiff up their products and services, and who knows how many other players may get into the game. Even Google is rumored to be interested in bidding on parts of the "old" spectrum as it considers new uses for assorted technologies.

However, the point for most of us is that we need to be prepared. If you don't want to buy a new digital or HD TV set, are not in an area of the country that's served by digital broadcasters or cable companies, or don't want to think about this, say goodbye to TV as you knew it in a few short months.

But there are alternatives. In fact, some of the money from the spectrum auction is intended to provide consumers with vouchers to purchase the analog-to-digital converter box (two per household) that will let you keep using your current TV sets to receive TV signals. They'll just be digital signals beaming through the air, slurping through the wires and onto your screen.

You can learn more about the voucher program, the analog-to-digital conversion process, and the 2009 timetable at the FCC's DTV website.

Don't say you weren't warned!


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