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Answers about the digital TV transition

The switch scheduled for Feb. 17 appears likely to be postponed until June 12. How would that affect consumers?

January 28, 2009|Ben Meyerson

WASHINGTON — If you're still using old-fashioned rabbit ears to watch television, you may be in luck for a few more months. The mandate to switch from old-school analog to new-school digital over-the-air TV is likely to be postponed from Feb. 17 to June 12, if a Senate bill passed Monday makes it through the House, which is scheduled to vote this morning.

But it's not quite that simple. Some areas have already made the switch, and it seems others can do so as they desire with approval from the Federal Communications Commission. Confused? Here are answers to a few key questions.

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Is the switch actually going to be delayed to June 12?

The political will seems to be there. The Obama administration pushed for a delay after funding for the federal government's subsidy program -- which offered two $40 coupons per household toward the purchase of converter boxes that allow viewers with older TVs to get the new digital signals -- ran out of money Jan. 5.

Politicians and consumer groups worried that without the subsidy program, many people would be left in the dark: Nielsen estimates that about 6.5 million Americans are unprepared for the digital transition.

"Consumers throughout America . . . will lose access to essential news and information" if the deadline isn't extended, said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst with Consumers Union. "Even if they tried to act six weeks early, they couldn't, because the coupon program melted down."

The Senate on Monday unanimously passed a bill delaying the transition, and the House is expected to vote to approve the bill today. Save for some last-minute political antics, it seems very likely that the bill will pass and the deadline for the switch will be pushed back to June 12.

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Does that mean my old TV will definitely work until June?

Not necessarily. June 12 would just be the date when broadcasters are required by the government to turn off their old analog signals. In Hawaii and Wilmington, N.C., the transition has already happened, and the Senate's bill clears the way for stations to make the switch whenever they like, as long as they follow the FCC's regulations in the process.

Some stations might want to make the switch early because broadcasting in both analog and digital is expensive. Analog transmitters use much more energy than their digital counterparts and are expensive to maintain. But hitting the switch early might mean losing a sizable number of viewers unprepared for the digital transition, and by extension, advertising dollars.

Acting FCC Chairman Michael J. Copps has suggested that the delay could lead to a phased-in approach in which stations make the switch region by region, allowing the government to focus its resources and learn lessons. Gulf Coast states, for example, could transition before the Atlantic hurricane season begins June 1.

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So what about those coupons?

President Obama has devoted $650 million of the new economic stimulus package in part to help replenish the coupon program, which is managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

There are 2.6 million people on a waiting list for the coupons, and only 20.8 million of the 46.5 million total coupons issued have been used. The coupons expire after 90 days, and currently cannot be renewed if they go unused. However, the Senate bill proposes that consumers who have let their coupons expire be allowed to reapply.

"It's safe to say that expediting the coupon program, putting more funding into the coupon program and helping out the million-plus consumers on a waiting list right now for the coupons . . . will help mitigate questions, concerns and problems that consumers will face dealing with this federally mandated transition," Kelsey said.

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What is it that's going to change whenever this happens?

In 2005, Congress decided to require a switch from analog over-the-air TV signals, which have been used since the medium's inception, to digital signals. Digital signals (which can carry much-vaunted high-definition TV) take up less space over the airwaves and can be much clearer and sharper than analog signals.

But unlike analog TV, there's no fuzzy in-between reception range if you're on the outskirts of a digital signal -- you get the signal fully or not at all. This means many people on the outskirts of suburbia or in rural areas may not get the TV stations they used to get over the air.

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What can I do to get ready for the transition?

If you use cable, satellite or another pay-TV service, you don't need to do anything -- the change affects only people who are getting over-the-air TV signals.

If you get TV over the airwaves, the first thing to do is to check your set. If your TV is more than a few years old, look to see if it has a digital or "ATSC" tuner built in. If it has an analog or "NTSC" tuner, you'll lose your signal after the transition.

There are three solutions: Buy a converter box that will allow you to view digital signals on your analog TV; buy a new TV with a digital tuner built in; or sign up for a pay-TV service that will do the conversion for you.

To apply for coupons, go to www.dtv2009.gov or call (888) DTV-2009.

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bmeyerson@tribune.com

Los Angeles Times staff writer Jim Puzzanghera contributed to this report.

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