The Transition to Digital Television: What Consumers Need to Know

Dennis Cuevas, Project Director and Chief Counsel, Consumer Protection

Dennis Cuevas, Project Director and Chief Counsel, Consumer Protection

On February 17, 2009, television stations across the country will begin sending computerized digital signals through the air. This switch --- from analog to digital broadcast television --- is referred to as the digital television transition. Television stations in U.S. markets currently broadcast in both analog and digital; however, Congress mandated that February 17, 2009 would be the last day for television stations to broadcast in analog.

Why the Switch to Digital Television?

The switch to all-digital television is partly a repercussion of the September 11th terrorist attacks when police and fire communications channels were clogged by too much traffic. Converting to digital television will free up parts of the scarce and valuable broadcast spectrum. Those portions of the spectrum can then be used for important services, such as public and safety services (police and fire departments, emergency rescue), and advanced wireless services. Congress set a deadline after the 9/11 Commission reported that first-responder systems needed a major upgrade.

For viewers, digital television can offer improved picture and sound, and potentially more programming options. Digital television can also offer interactive features, such as electronic program guides.

Do Consumers Know About the Switch?

According to a poll conducted by the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, half of American viewers do not know about the mandatory transition to digital television. An estimated 30 million televisions use traditional antennas and those television sets will “go to snow” without the required digital converter box.

To help consumers with the transition, the federal government established the Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, administers the program. Every U.S. household may receive up to two coupons, worth $40 each, toward the purchase of eligible digital-to-analog converter boxes. Consumers may request the coupons this month. The coupons may only be used for eligible converter boxes sold at participating consumer electronics retailers, and the coupons must be used at the time of purchase. The digital-to-analog converter boxes will sell anywhere from $40 to $70 each.

For consumers who subscribe to cable, they may receive digital programming if they subscribe to a digital or HD package from a cable provider, and they are viewing the digital programming on a digital set. However, consumers should realize that the digital cable tier and satellite TV service are not necessarily digital television. Cable or satellite television systems may be using digital technology as a more efficient way of delivering analog programming. However, if consumers have an analog television set, they are probably not getting digital television. It is important for consumers to check with their cable or satellite provider to determine what kinds of programming they receive and what equipment they may need.

In addition, federal law now requires that all television reception devices, including TVs, VCRs and DVRs, imported into the U.S. or shipped in interstate commerce must contain a digital tuner. Retailers may continue to sell analog-only devices from their existing inventory, but must prominently display on or near the analog-only device a consumer alert label that states, “This television receiver has only an analog broadcast tuner and will require a converter box after February 17, 2009, to receive over-the-air broadcasts with an antenna because of the Nation’s transition to digital broadcasting.”

How Do Consumers Know If They Already Have A Digital Television?

Most digital television equipment will have labels or markings on them, or statements in the informational materials to indicate that they contain digital tuners. These labels or markings may contain the words “Integrated Digital Tuner,” “Digital Tuner Built-In,” “Digital Receiver,” or “Digital Tuner,” “DTV,” “ATSC,” or “HDTV” (High Definition television). If consumers’ television equipment contains any of these labels or markings, they should be able to view digital over-the-air programming without the need for a digital-to-analog converter box. Consumers need to realize that they do not need High Definition Television (HDTV) to view free over-the-air digital programming. They simply need television equipment that contains a digital tuner.

If consumers’ television sets are labeled as a “Digital Monitor” or “HDTV Monitor,” or as “Digital Ready” or “HDTV Ready,” this does not mean it actually contains a digital tuner. Thus, consumers still will likely need a separate set-top box, which contains a digital tuner in order to view over-the-air digital programming.

If consumers cannot determine whether their television set or other television equipment contains a digital tuner, they should check with their manufacturer or with an electronics retailer to verify whether their equipment contains a digital tuner.

Outreach Toolkit

The Federal Communications Commission has developed an outreach toolkit that may be used by government agencies, community organizations, and others to conduct DTV Transition Awareness Programs. These materials, found at http://www.dtv.gov/outreach.html, are not copyrighted, thus reprint permission is not required. For more information call 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322); TTY: 1-888-TELL FCC (1-888-835-5322).

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