Going Digital in 2009

by Hugh R. Paul

Deadline for Digital TV Conversion Now June 12, 2009

At this point in time, almost everyone with a TV in their home has seen the public service announcements that the new extended deadline for TV stations to cease broadcasting in the analog format is now June 12, 2009. After this date, TV stations, except for low power stations and translators, will broadcast only in a digital format. These notifications also point out that if you want to continue receiving terrestrial TV signals from your local stations on your analog TV, it will be necessary to acquire a converter box that receives the digital signal and converts it to analog. They state further, if you obtain your TV programs by means of cable or satellite, it will not be necessary to purchase a digital to analog receive converter. The set top boxes provided by the cable company and the satellite receivers already perform this function.

Government Rebate Coupon Program Extended by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009

While you may currently receive your TV programs via cable or satellite, you may wish to consider the purchase of at least one digital converter box for possible use in the future or in alternative receive situations, such as in a recreational vehicle. To facilitate the acquisition of these devices at low cost to the consumer, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration originally initiated a rebate coupon program that ended March 31, 2009. Under this program, consumers could apply for and obtain a maximum of two rebate coupons worth $40 each toward the purchase of a converter that conforms to the technical standards established by that agency. Although the funds allocated for this program were depleted prior to the original scheduled closing date, Congress appropriated additional funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, signed into law by President Obama this past February. Full details with requirements and updates on this rebate coupon program can be found at https://www.dtv2009.gov.

Digital Does Not Necessarily Mean High Definition Video

To better understand the functions that the coupon-eligible converter boxes are designed to do (or not do), it is important to understand a bit about the new digital TV broadcast standards. TV broadcasters have been assigned a fixed segment of spectrum within which they may transmit one or more digital channels. The picture definition will vary depending on how much of the assigned channel segment is being utilized for transmission. The lowest program definition, referred to as standard definition TV (SDTV), would be about the same as a current standard analog TV picture. The highest would be true high definition (HDTV). There is also a mid level known as enhanced definition TV (EDTV). The coupon eligible converter boxes will receive all three of these program standards, but will only provide a SDTV equivalent picture to your analog TV.

At this point, many of the terrestrial TV stations are not broadcasting in the HDTV format full time. One reason is the lack of HDTV formatted program material. Another reason being they have elected to multi-cast, providing up to five SDTV signals simultaneously.

A tremendous amount of program material has been recorded over the years in the old National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) analog format. This format provided a picture with a width to height ratio of 4 x 3, which is also the aspect ratio of analog TV receiver screens employing cathode ray picture tubes. These represent the majority of analog receivers currently in use. In more recent times program producers began to utilize a 16 x 9 wide screen format for some of their recorded productions, a decision prompted in anticipation of the new digital HDTV standards, which mandate a picture with a 16 x 9 ratio. This is similar to the aspect ratio seen in motion picture theaters and known as “letterbox” format for many wide screen movies shown on TV.

Required Features for Coupon-Eligible Converter Boxes

These variations in aspect ratios account for NTIA establishing standards for the display mode capability of coupon eligible converters. They have mandated that these converters be capable of displaying both the letterbox 16 x 9 format and the older 4 x 3 format.

Other features required by NTIA for coupon eligible converters include:

• One input for connecting to an indoor or outdoor antenna.
• One output for connecting to the antenna input of a TV receiver.
• Composite video and stereo audio outputs for connection to a TV receiver with provisions for these connections.
• A remote control device.
• Secondary audio program (SAP) capability for reception of foreign language program audio, if provided by the TV station.
• Emergency Alert System.
• Closed captioning.
• Parental control of program display (V Chip).
• On screen signal strength display to facilitate orienting of the TV antenna toward the TV station.
• On screen TV channel guide (electronic program guide).

There are literally dozens of digital to analog converter models on the market, but not all are eligible for participation in the coupon rebate program. There are some that will function as digital TV tuners and will interface with TV/computer monitors. Others provide for inter-connection with various digital high definition multi-media devices. These capabilities are beyond the scope and intent of the NTIA rebate program.

However, there are some features that are permitted, which you may wish to consider in light of your particular needs. Keep in mind that they may impact on the price of the converter. These features include:

• S-Video output for connection to TV receivers so equipped.
• Battery power capability for use with battery powered TV receivers.
• Smart antenna connection.
• The ability to pass through analog signals from low power stations and translators that will continue to operate in some areas.

Smart antennas, unlike the old type of outdoor antennas that employed a mechanical rotation system, utilize a micro-processor control to electronically steer the antenna direction and gain. This can be of considerable benefit in those situations where TV transmitters are in different directions from the viewing location and far enough away that received signal levels are marginal. Once each TV station has been selected and the antenna oriented for maximum signal strength on the converter signal level display, the information is stored in memory. From then on, direction and gain track automatically for the station selected by the remote control of the converter box.

A Consumer Test of a Brand Name Converter Box

Manufacturers of these converter boxes continue to modify and improve their performance. While they must all meet a technical performance test criteria, as established by the federal government, they do vary in performance. Given the number of manufacturers and models of converters, it is difficult to determine which is best at any given moment. We elected to evaluate one of the lower cost units available at Wal-Mart stores. They sell a Magnavox, model number TB110MW9A, at a price of just under $50. With the $40 rebate coupon, price out the door was just under $10 plus sales tax. The only optional feature in the converter was the ability to pass through analog TV signals.

The test site was an RV park northwest of Orlando, Florida. This location was from 29 to 47 miles from Orlando TV transmitter sites and surrounded with trees greater than 40 feet in height. The model we tested did not have provision for connecting to a “smart antenna”, so it was connected to an amplified bidirectional antenna on top of a 5th wheel trailer. This resulted in clear reception of 11 primary channels and 17 sub channels, for a total of 28 program channels. Compare this to reception of 13 stations broadcasting in an analog format, only five of which would be considered to have good quality video.

In Conclusion

It should be noted that manufacturers do not have a long history of building these converter devices, consequently they have been making improvements in performance and reliability over the past year. Often when improvements are made the model number is modified to indicate a performance upgrade. Therefore, upon purchasing, it is prudent to ask the vendor if the converter being offered is indeed the latest version.

The federal government suggests that when you buy a converter, you connect it and test all of its functions immediately. If it is not working or working incorrectly it can usually be exchanged for a new unit. When evaluating performance it is imperative that you be aware that with digital TV, the signal level is either sufficient to provide a good picture or there will be no picture at all. This is unlike the case with analog TV where you can see a picture even though the received signal level may be low and the picture noisy.

Stated warranties are usually 90 days parts and labor, plus an additional nine months, parts only. When the service center for the Magnavox unit was asked if the labor costs during the extended warranty period was based on a flat or hourly rate? They responded it would be on a flat rate basis, however, they had not yet gained enough experience with failure rates to determine what that rate should be. In the interim they are exchanging defective units at no charge, when returned to the service center during the extended warranty period.•

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