Without converter, older TV may fade from picture
By Vicky Katz Whitaker
Copley News Service
If you're looking for a good buy on a new television set, read the label. That bargain could be out-of-date faster than you can say "rabbit ears" if you rely on an outdoor or built-in antenna to watch your favorite shows.
That's because television stations across the country will switch to beaming all-digital broadcast signals on Feb. 17. After that date, you won't be able to see free, over-the-air television programs on any set with an analog or NTSC label unless it also has a digital tuner.
The federally mandated shift to digital broadcasting is designed to free up parts of the broadcast band for use by public safety organizations such as police and fire departments. It also allows high definition and analog signals to be broadcast on the same channel and clears the way for expansion of interactive video and data services.
For now, viewers who pay for cable, satellite or telephone company television service won't be affected by the transition, no matter what type of set they own. But if they subscribe to basic analog cable service, eventually they may have to upgrade to pricier digital service should their provider decide to drop simultaneous analog broadcasting.
Since March 2007, the Federal Communications Commission has required all imported television sets and related electronic equipment and those shipped interstate to have digital tuners. While retailers still can sell sets and devices without digital tuners from existing inventory, they must attach an FCC-mandated consumer alert label or post a consumer alert sign nearby.
But consumers may still have trouble distinguishing differences. Sets that carry labels that say "digital monitor" or "HDTV monitor" or say they are "digital ready" or "HDTV ready" may not work with the new system unless they also have a digital tuner, the FCC says. If you plan to stick with your old set, you'll need converter boxes with a digital tuner for each set you own and for non-digital peripherals such as an analog VCR. The same applies to battery-operated analog television sets including those found in many recreational vehicles.
Consumer electronics industry sources say there are no plans to market a battery-operated converter. That's bad news for those who now count on their present battery-operated television sets for emergency news and information if the power goes out in a hurricane, tornado or other natural disaster. Their battery-operated sets will be unable to receive the digital signal. But at least two manufacturers - Coby Electronics and Innovation, the Best Buy house brand - are working on portable battery-operated digital TVs. Coby expects to have its set ready for market well before the digital switchover. Innovation's battery-operated hand-held/portable digital TV will be introduced in July, says spokeswoman Emily Schroeder. Prices have yet to be disclosed.
Also, with the right hardware, some high-end battery-operated laptops can pick up digital television signals.
More than 70 digital converters are already on the market, running an average $50 to $70. The Federal Communications Commission is now offering households up to two $40 rebate coupons for use within three months of the issue date. To sign up, go to www.dtv2009.gov or call 888-388-2009 (voice) or 877-530-2634 (TTY). You'll need one converter box for each analog television set or other analog device such as a VCR.
Industry insiders predict cheaper versions of the converters will be on the market later this year, probably after the coupons expire. Only 22.25 million coupons are being issued now and an additional 11.25 million will be issued once those are gone, but only to households with analog televisions who depend exclusively on over-the-air signals.
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