Switch to Digital Television Causing Confusion

Published April 1, 2008

The federally mandated national changeover to digital television is less than a year away, meaning the end of analogue broadcast signals and more demand among consumers for digital programming.

But reports of the death of older television sets are unfounded, according to Joy Sims, spokesperson for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NTIA).

“Our goal right now is to educate customers,” Sims said. The federal government has allocated $5 million in public education funding to NTIA, while the FCC has requested $1.5 million for the same purpose.

Confused about Transition

There is still major confusion among consumers about the transition to high-definition digital television, according to a recent survey from Consumer Reports National Research Center. Seventy-four percent of respondents who said they were aware of the upcoming transition still have serious misconceptions about its impact.

The survey also found more than one-third (36 percent) of Americans in households with TVs are unaware of the government-mandated transition to digital broadcasting slated for February 2009.

Among those who are aware of the transition, more than half (58 percent) believe all TVs will need a digital converter box to function, 48 percent believe only digital televisions will work after 2009, and nearly one-quarter (24 percent) believe they will need to throw away all of their analog television sets.

Older TVs Still Usable

By themselves or with an old-style antenna, the analog sets won’t be useable after the February 17, 2009 conversion date. But converter boxes will enable older sets to receive and use the digital signals by converting them to analog, Sims says. The boxes will retail for $50 to $70 apiece, and each such television set will need one.

Televisions using cable or satellite signals will not need the converter boxes, as the service providers will handle conversion of the signal.

The converter boxes will be available for purchase this spring. Beginning on January 1, 2008, U.S. households have been able to request up to two coupons valued at $40 each from NTIA, to apply toward the purchase of set-top converter boxes.

New Sets Are Digital

Though older televisions will continue to work with cable or satellite services or with the aid of conversion boxes, analog televisions stopped going into production for the U.S. market nearly a year ago.

As of March 1, 2007 all television receivers shipped in interstate commerce or imported into the United States were required to include a digital tuner, according to FCC. Additionally, effective May 25, 2007 FCC required sellers of television receiving equipment that does not include a digital tuner to disclose at the point of sale such devices include only an analog tuner.

Frequencies Needed

Congress mandated the conversion to all-digital television broadcasting, also known as the digital television transition, because it will free up badly needed frequencies for public safety communications (such as police, fire, and emergency rescue), according to FCC.

A “Consumer Facts” page on the FCC Web site notes several other advantages of digital TV:

“Also, digital is a more efficient transmission technology that allows broadcast stations to offer improved picture and sound quality, as well as offer more programming options for consumers through multiple broadcast streams (multicasting). In addition, some of the freed-up frequencies will be used for advanced commercial wireless services for consumers.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from Chicago.