CES: TV converter boxes offer escape from analog TV

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Editor's Note: The following story is excerpted from PC World. The Today@PCWorld blog has more information on analog-to-digital TV issues.

Do you still get your TV reception via rabbit ears or a roof-top antennae? If so, you’ve got about a year to procure a digital-to-analog converter box and prepare your television for the impending digital TV revolution. As mandated by federal law, on February 19, 2009, over-the-air television broadcasts will switch from analog to digital.

If you’re stuck with an analog-only TV, don’t worry: Converter boxes will be available. LG and Philips will be showing off some of the first at this year’s CES, and the boxes will go on sale for around $60 in the first quarter of the year. To help ease the transition, starting January 1, you’ll be able to request a $40 coupon subsidy from the federal government.

If you’ve already upgraded to a high-definition TV, you won’t be affected by the coming transition. Nor will you feel an immediate impact if you receive you’re a cable or satellite subscriber: The FCC requires cable and satellite providers to continue providing an analog signal until 2012.

The 2009 transition will impact only the small percentage of Americans who get their TV signal over the air using an antenna, explains Jason Oxman of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). “We call these “untethered” households—about 11 percent of the nation’s households,” Oxman says. “As of today, we estimate there are 13.5 million such households.”

When the switch takes place in 2009, the analog signal—and these untethered households—will go dark.

Digital TV revolution starts now

The coupon program is administered by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and funded by $1.5 billion appropriated by Congress. The intent of the program is to subsidize the nation’s transition to digital television by allowing consumers to continue receiving free over-the-air television. The program is open to all American households, and was established in the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005.

So how does it work? You can apply for up to two $40 coupons per household, either by visiting the official site launched on January 1, or calling 888-DTV-2009. Printed applications will also be available at post offices and at public libraries, in English, Spanish, and other languages.

Starting February 18, 2008, the government will send coupons by U.S. mail in the form of a gift card that consumers can use at electronics retailers that sell the digital-to-analog converter boxes. You’ll have approximately three months to redeem the coupon.

So far, only Digital Stream, LG Electronics, and Philips have converter boxes that are approved by the NTIA, and only LG and Philips have announced actual products. The boxes are expected to cost between $59 and $69.

First-Generation DTV converter boxes

The basic, coupon-eligible converter boxes have RF inputs and outputs, and contain both a digital ATSC tuner and an analog NTSC tuner, so they can receive digital signals and convert them to analog. The converter box is designed to sit between the antennae and any analog tuner-enabled device, such as a TV or VCR.

The first-generation boxes are fairly basic in their design and capabilities. Energy Star compliance is permitted, but not required, for example. Same for electronic program guides; in this case, Congress feared such a requirement would drive the price of a converter box higher.

None of the boxes in development so far feature an IR blaster; that means that if you use the box with a VCR or DVD recorder with an analog tuner, you will have to manually switch channels—the recorder won’t be able to change channels on the converter box.

At CES, LG will show two boxes, both scheduled to ship in the first quarter of 2008. One will be sold under LG’s Zenith brand, the other will be made by LG for a private brand. The $60 Zenith DTT900 will have composite audio/video outputs, plus V-Chip parental control and user-customizable digital closed captioning. The EnergyStar-compliant box (it requires less than 1 watt of in passive mode and less than 8 watts in active mode) will also have its own remote control, a trilingual (English, Spanish, and French) on-screen display as well as a simple electronic program guide (based on the program data encoded with the ATSC broadcast), the capability to display 4:3 and 16:9 content, and tuning for channels 2 through 69.

The inclusion of the program guide is significant, says LG’s John Taylor, vice president of public affairs and communications. “Many who get this box for the first time will get many more channels they did with their analog TV,” he says. “The EPG will help them to navigate through that.”

Philips will show three models at CES: one under the company’s Magnavox brand, and two under its Philco brand. The three models will be priced between $59 and $69, says Philips. The Magnavox TB100MW9 DTV Digital-to-Analog Converter also has one set of composite audio/video outputs, offers trilingual (English, French, and Spanish) on-screen setup, supports V-Chip parental controls and digital closed captioning, is EnergyStar compliant, and comes with its own remote control.

The Philco TB100HH9 DTV Digital-to-Analog Converter is an entry-level model that’s identical to the Magnavox in features and specs. The step-up model, the Philco TB150HH9 DTV Digital-to-Analog Converter, adds digital audio output via coaxial audio and what Philips describes as smart antennae control to optimize reception.

Promoting the transition

The coupon program launches just days before the start of the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The CEA and NTIA plan to use CES as a platform to heavily promote the transition, in a concerted effort to increase consumer awareness of the February 19, 2009 date. The NTIA has also signed up retailers to help educate consumers, and is stepping up consumer education through televised advertisements that point to the DTVtransition.org Web site.

The educational effort won’t stop there. “The DTV Transition coalition is working to make sure consumers understand their options,” says LG’s Taylor, who also chairs the coalition. “[Users] can subscribe to cable or satellite, buy a new television set, or they can buy the converter box. It’s really all about helping make sure grandma’s TV doesn’t go dark on February 19, 2009. For a $20 co-payment, the converter box is like breathing new life into these old TV tuners.”

The CEA’s Oxman says that although it estimates 13.5 million households today will require a converter box, he expects that number to drop before the transition date.

“More and more consumers are subscribing to multichannel video services, cable, satellite, and teleco services. About 86 percent of Americans [already] subscribe to a multichannel video provider. The other reason we expect the number of analog households to go down is because more Americans are buying digital TVs. By the end of 2007, 53 percent of American households will own a digital television.”

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