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Converter Boxes Are Here!

Updated March 10, 2008

Got analog TV? Use an antenna to get your (free) programming?

After February 17, 2009 you won't get anything unless you have a digital-to-analog converter box connected to it. But before that date, there are good reasons for using a converter box to receive digital broadcasts.

First, the picture will be perfect (assuming you can get it at all - you may need to upgrade your antenna if your analog picture is now iffy). Second, you will be able to receive a TV station's digital multi-cast or sub-channels.

These extra channels are just that--more channels. PBS especially has lots of them, including programs they do not air on their analog channel.

And third, some broadcast stations may reduce or eliminate their analog signals early in preparation for converting their equipment to its final digital configuration. A few stations have already shut down their analog channels; this will be more common as the end of the transition gets closer.

And after a long wait and delays, you can finally buy them now. Horray!

They are in stores, but not a big selection of models yet (as of early March). This will change.

Best Buy, Radio Shack, WalMart and others have them now. You can find out if local retailers have them in your area by visiting this page.

I bought an Insignia converter box from Best Buy in early March. Here are my impressions.

The good news is that you can get a $40 coupon (or two) that will drop the expected retail price of $60 per box down to about $20. Cheap. And at least one manufacturer (Echostar/Sling) has announced a $40 retail price for its box so they would be free after the coupon (I'm going to spring for the extra bucks to get a box from a more established manufacturer.) The Echostar box will not be available until June or July but others are now selling for about $50 on up to about $70.

You can get coupons four ways:

  • Apply online at www.dtv2009.gov.
  • Call the Coupon Program 24-hour hotline 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009), TTY 1-877-530-2634
  • 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)

Once you get your coupons, you have to use them within 90 days. If you let them expire, they won't give you any more.

To date, about fifty converter boxes have been certified by the NTIA as being coupon-eligible:

Click here for a current list.

Samsung has also demonstrated a box but it has not yet been approved.

For a representative pdf spec sheet on a converter box, in this case the Zenith DTT900, click here.

LG box at hearing
LG/Zenith converter box shown at Congressional hearing

RCA DTA800 Coverter Box
RCA DTA800

Jasco/GE Box
Jasco/GE Box

These are the technical requirements for boxes eligible for the government's subsidy program:

The boxes will need an antenna, but the antennas used now for analog reception should work just fine for digital TV.

The boxes must be capable of receiving and presenting all of the ATSC digital TV formats (e.g. 1080/60i), although they will obviously not be presented in high-definition nor do the frame rates have to be the same (everything converted to NTSC's 480i).

The box must be able to display all TV channels, including broadcaster's secondary or "sub-channels" (multi-cast).

It must also be able to display closed captioning, emergency alert system messages, and parental controls (V-chip).

The boxes must be capable of presenting the received programming in three different screen formats. This is interesting. The viewer will have the choice of displaying widescreen programming either with its sides chopped off--to completely fill a 4:3 aspect ratio analog screen, OR displayed in letterbox form with black bars top and bottom. The third required output option is a "full or partially zoomed output of unknown transmitted image." So all of the new widescreeen programming will not by necessity be letterboxed, but the tradeoff is you lose the left and right parts of the picture if you don't want black bars. But for legacy 4:3 programming broadcast in widescreen format, the left and right parts of the picture will just be black, so might as well cut them off.

The box must process PSIP data (Program and System Information Protocol). This is the information the TV needs to properly tune in all the digital channels, as well as electronic programming guide information, and other technical data.

The box must be able to tune in channels 2 through 69. After the end of the transition, channels 52 through 69 will be removed from TV service and that spectrum auctioned to other wireless service providers (and some of it allocated to emergency response organizations -- e.g. fire departments, police, etc.). But because many people will be using these converter boxes during 2008 and up to February 17, 2009, when channels 52 through 69 will still be used by TV stations, the extended channel range is being included in the box specifications. After the transition, TV will all be on channels 2 through 51.

The boxes will have the standard RF coax input for your antenna. They will also be required to have an RF output with a channel 3/4 selector for those people whose TVs are so old they don't have even a composite video input (the yellow RCA jack, the one that's next to the red and white audio inputs). The boxes will have those composite outputs: red, white, and yellow RCA output jacks, and they also may (optionally) include one of those yellow/red/white cables in the package.

Optionally, the boxes may also have an S-video output. Eligible boxes may NOT have any other more advanced outputs, including DVI, HDMI, component, VGA, Firewire, Ethernet, or the ability to pass data wirelessly. Manufacturers may build boxes with these outputs, but they will not be eligible for the $40 subsidy.

NTIA is requiring boxes to meet performance specifications for: RF dynamic range (sensitivity), phase noise, co-channel rejection, first adjacent channel rejection, taboo channel rejection, burst noise, field ensembles, and single static echo. They want them to actually work.

And of course it will have a remote control (including batteries), and the consumer will be given the codes needed to program a universal remote (those five remotes cluttering up your coffee table?). Optionally, manufacturers may include a programmable universal remote control.

Energy standards are specified: no more than two watts in sleep state. Unfortunately, there is no power consumption limitation for the "on" state, although optionally, nice manufacturers may build boxes that comply with EPA Energy Star standards or standards established by state authorities (gosh, that was sure generous of NTIA to allow that!).

There are some more good things. An LED "on" indicator is required, as well as an owner's manual. And something really good (sincerely): a signal quality indicator so you can adjust your antenna for maximum signal strength. This is important because with digital signals, the picture is either perfect or not there. With analog, you could adjust the antenna for the best picture (fuzzy to sharp, or maybe least fuzzy). A nice touch.

Speaking of antennas, manufacturers may optionally include a Smart Antenna interface connector, and may sell a Smart Antenna together with such an equipped box at promotional pricing, although the purchase of the converter box may not be conditioned by the purchase of the Smart Antenna. A Smart Antenna is an advanced phased-array electronically steerable antenna capable of (in conjunction with the TV receiver) measuring the strength of the TV signal and electronically (not physically) aiming itself to achieve the maximum strength signal. It does this in real time and of course when you change the channel. If you have a Smart Antenna, you don't have to get up and manually turn the antenna (or do it with an electrical rotator). Electronically steerable phased-array antennas have been around in other fields for awhile (e.g. for radar), but have been very expensive. I haven't seen any for consumer TV applications yet, but apparently they are coming.

Boxes may optionally incorporate an NTSC/analog pass-through (from antenna to receiver) and a pass-through switch for people who may want to tune in analog stations withou having to physically disconnect the converter box. Some translator and "low-power" analog stations will be allowed to continue transmitting an analog signal past the February 17, 2009 cut-off date, and have no digital twin during that period.