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The Digital TV Transition: Three Scenarios

A lot of information exists online about the transition process, buying gear, converter box coupon, and antennas but the average television watcher fits into one of three scenarios.

First, you must know how you get your television shows: a television hooked up to a cable provider, an analog TV and antenna, a television with a digital tuner and antenna.

1) Scenario 1: You subscribe to cable television – you’re OK, don’t worry.

Whether you have an analog or digital TV, you should be okay. If you want, call your cable provider to double check.

My cable provider is Comcast. I called the general 1-800 customer service number to confirm my analog television with the basic cable package would automatically switch over to digital cable on June 12. My neighborhood has strong digital signals so all is okay.

2) Scenario 2: You have an analog television with an antenna and no cable service – now you have three options.

Option 1 - Essentially, a converter box will allow your NTSC standard television to read the data stream coming from a broadcaster’s digital tuner sent via the newer ATSC standard.

A box costs about $60-70 dollars. The government has a $40 off coupon program which you can sign up online for on the program website https://www.dtv2009.gov/ or call the Coupon Program’s toll-free, 24-hour automated system 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009).

Deaf or hard of hearing callers may dial 1-877-530-2634 (English/TTY) or 1-866-495-1161 (Spanish/TTY). TTY Service is available from 9 AM – 9 PM Eastern Time Monday through Friday.

Things to know about option 1

  • If you buy and hook up a box but the reception isn’t acceptable, you may want to research antennas. From what I’ve read, an antenna that receives both VHF (channels 2-13) and UAF (channels 14-51) is ideal though not necessary. Also, be mindful that digital signals are more fussy than analog. Trucks, shadows, location and wind can affect signal strength.
  • Depending on how far you live from a broadcast tower, your digital signal may not be as clear as the analog one. In that case, you may have to consider installing an outdoor antenna.
  • For information on indoor antennas, like rabbit ears and bowties, visit the FCC’s consumer facts page, and for outdoor antenna advice, the industry go-to site is AntennaWeb.

Option 2 - If you subscribe to cable, you will be receiving data over lines versus over-the-air which elmiinates the analog problem. You may or may not need your antenna. Call or visit your local cable company online to inquire about rates.

If you are receiving over-the-air free broadcast, you are most likely not picking up things like HBO. You may be a good candidate for a basic or limited basic cable package which provides NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, FOX, and a few other stations for a reasonable monthly fee. I pay about $14 for my basic cable package though I’ve seen better deals out right now for new subscribers.

Option 3 - Most televisions made after 2005 have a digital tuner inside meaning the TV can read over-the-air digital signals. You may or may not need a new antenna depending on the strength of signals and the distance of the nearest broadcasting tower. You will want an antenna that receives both VHF and UAF channels.

If you subscribe to Consumer Reports, their site has fairly comprehensive television set reviews. National retail sites often have compare/contrast features so you can analyze which set is best for you.

3) Scenario 3: I have a television with built in ATSC digital tuner + antenna and no cable service – you’re fine but you may want to think about an antenna

You can continue to receive free over-the-air broadcasting without changing anything. If you feel the picture quality declines, you may want to look at the FCC digital reception coverage maps to check your area.

You may or may not need a new antenna depending on the strength of signals and the distance of the nearest broadcasting tower. You will want an antenna that receives both VHF and UAF channels.


Tip 1: June 13

On June 13 re-scan your cable channels to make sure you are receiving all the channels in your plan.

Tip 2: The Coupon

If you download the application to print out versus filling out the auto-form online, you will need to send the form to the government.

- Mail a coupon application to: PO BOX 2000, Portland, OR 97208-2000.

- Fax a coupon application to 1-877-DTV-4ME2 (1-877-388-4632)

The coupon is actually a plastic card. The turnaround time is about nine days from the time the office receives your application. You may not receive the coupon until after June 12.

Each household can request up to two coupons. The application deadline is July 31. The coupon is only valid for 90 days. The program is first come first serve so depending on volume of requests, you may be put on a waiting list.

Tip 3: Order Nothing Special

You do not need to order any special digital cable package or cable box. Basic cable packages usually don’t come with a cable box. I downgraded my cable package so I do have a box but the Comcast operator said I wouldn’t need one to still receive digital channels.


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