NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, May 2007
Countdown to the Digital Deadline
By Jim Sanders,
Editor, North Orange County Computer Club, California

Obtained from APCUG with the author's permission for publication by APCUG member groups.
editor@noccc.org (click to email author)

Television, as most of us know it, has barely two years of life left in it. Congress has set a deadline of February 17, 2009 for analog broadcasts to end. That means that the faithful television that you have had, for I don’t know how many years, will cease functioning on that date. Well, cease functioning may be too strong of a description, but there will no longer be an over the air broadcast of the analog type of signal that it knows how to interpret.

Starting on that date, all of the over the air television broadcasting stations have been mandated to transmit the digital television format signal only. Old faithful, or maybe not so old, can still be used as long as there is some device that can feed it the analog signal that it knows how to deal with. This could be your VCR or DVD player for instance. Or, it could be one of the set top boxes that millions of people are going to have to purchase if they wish to continue using their analog television to receive over the air television broadcasts. The purpose of the set top box is to tune in the digital television frequency and convert it to the NTSB analog signal that your television knows how to deal with.

The set top boxes contain an ATSC tuner. This stands for Advanced Television Systems Committee. They are an international organization setting the standards for digital television. In time, they will replace the NTSC, which is an American organization overseeing analog TV transmissions. There is considerable talk about Congress passing legislation to subsidize, or provide free of charge, set top boxes to low income families. At this time there is no requirement that the recipients be United States citizens.

When you purchase a digital television, ATSC is a term that will be listed on the specifications showing that the television has a built-in digital tuner. There are eighteen formats in the DTV spectrum, 12 SDTV formats and 6 HDTV formats.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the regulating organization in the United States that controls conversion from analog to digital. The Federal Communications Commission has set deadlines that mandate all manufacturers include digital tuners in their televisions. These are the dates that have been mandated:

July 1, 2005: all TVs with screen sizes over 36 in. must include built-in ATSC tuner.
July 1, 2006: 100% of 25 to 35in. TVs must include ATSC DTV tuner.
July 1, 2007: 100% of 13 to 24in. TVs must include ATSC DTV tuner.
July 1, 2007 100% of all interface device’s must have ATSC DTV tuner. That includes equipment such as VHS VCRs, DVD player/recorders, and DVRs.

These deadlines only apply to new televisions and do not include the huge inventory of existing units. That is why you may see a number of television’s larger than 36in. still being sold without built-in digital tuners.

Definition of television; a television is a viewing device that includes a tuner. A device without a tuner is called a monitor. There is a loophole in the FCC regulations that allows manufacturers to build TVs without any tuner which would technically make it a monitor.

Most cable subscribers and all satellite subscribers use their service provider’s set top box to receive and decode the digital signals instead of using the television’s built-in ATSC tuner. One exception to that rule is a small credit card type of chip that takes the place of the set top box and is called a CableCARD.

Most cable and satellite providers charge in the neighborhood of $9.95 a month to receive HD channels. Over the air High Definition channels are “free” in the same sense that current analog channels are free, that is you pay the price of watching the commercials but don’t actually have to shell out money. So if you spend the extra bucks up front to buy an HD television that includes the ATSC tuner, you are not forced to pay that additional monthly charge. By purchasing an antenna from an electronics store for in the neighborhood of $25.00 to $100.00, a person that owns a set with a built-in ATSC tuner can enjoy the over the air broadcasts for free.

When the analog signals are turned off and digital becomes the standard, cable and satellite providers will probably provide the local networks for free if they don’t do so already. But you will still have to buy or lease the cable box which right now costs in the neighborhood of $199.00. In addition to that, you’ll still have to purchase the programming from the provider.

So if you are a person that currently relies on getting all of your television through a rooftop antenna, in less than two years you will be faced with the choice of spending money for some new equipment or no longer being able to watch television.

One method of dealing with the problem would be to purchase one of the new DVD VCR combos that include the ATSC tuner. A number of VCR manufacturers, including Panasonic, have announced that when the new regulations go into effect, they will simply stop manufacturing that class of equipment. JVC has announced a new DVD/VCR/ATSC tuner model that will be available in May, the DRMV99 at $329.95. If you already own a good VCR and a good DVD player, it might make more sense to go ahead and purchase just the ATSC set top tuner.

In addition to dealing with all of the high definition signal acquisition problems, a whole lot of people are already trying to deal with the somewhat confusing array of HDTV offerings. The terminology which is frequently observed in the papers can be very confusing. The phrase “HD ready” is usually an indicator that the unit is a monitor that does not include a tuner. A lot of advertisements conveniently do not include what version of high definition a particular offering is. It is simply referred to as HD without saying whether it is 720i, 720p, 1080i or 1080p. The actual pixel resolution is often omitted as well. The 720i or p sets need to have a resolution of 1280 pixels by 720 pixels. The real 1080i or p sets need to have a resolution of 1920 pixels by 1080 pixels. Just like the older VGA computer monitors the 720i refers to an interlaced display and the 720p refers to a progressive scan display. The progressive display is the better quality.

Then you have to decide which display technology you are going to pick. The Plasma flat panel, the LCD flat panel, the rear projection DLP television, the rear projection LCD television, the wall projection unit in either DLP or LCD. What is the brightness level? What is the viewing angle? What is the life expectancy of the projector bulb? What is the cost of the projector bulb? Does the unit have a VGA, a DVI and an HDMI video connector?

At the moment, I think the best bang for the buck is to purchase a projector that will do 720p, and if you can afford the extra cost, one that will do 1080p. If you have never seen even an older 800x600 projector displaying a movie from a standard DVD on an eight foot diagonal screen, I think you will find it impressive and I think you should do that before you spend money on anything.

Some selected FAQs from your http://www.dtv.gov/.

What is the digital TV transition?
The switch from analog TV (the traditional TV system using magnetic waves to transmit and display TV pictures and sound) to digital television (the new TV system using information transmit­ted as “data bits” -- like a computer -- to display movie-quality pictures and sound), is referred to at the digital TV (DTV) transi­tion. In 1996, the U.S. Congress authorized the distribution of an additional broadcast channel to each TV broadcaster so that they could introduce DTV service while simultaneously continuing their analog TV broadcasts. In addition to improved picture and sound quality, an important benefit of DTV is that it will free up parts of the broadcast spectrum for public safety as well as other valuable uses. This is possible because the modern technology of DTV is more efficient than analog TV technology. DTV allows the same number of stations to broadcast using fewer total channels (less of the broadcast spectrum) which will free up scarce and valuable spectrum for public safety and new wireless services.

What is the February 17th, 2009 DTV deadline date?
Congress passed a law on February 1, 2006, setting a final deadline for the DTV transition of February 17, 2009. Most television stations will continue broadcasting both analog and digital programming until February 17, 2009, when all analog broadcasting will stop. Analog TVs receiving over-the-air pro­gramming will still work after that date, but owners of these TVs will need to buy converter boxes to change digital broadcasts into analog format. Converter boxes will be available from consumer electronic products retailers at that time. Cable and satellite sub­scribers with analog TVs should contact their service providers about obtaining converter boxes for the DTV transition.

What is digital television (DTV)?
Digital television (DTV) is a new type of broadcasting tech­nology that will transform television as we now know it. By transmitting the information used to make a TV picture and sound as “data bits” (like a computer), a digital broadcaster can carry more information than is currently possible with analog broadcast technology. For example, the technology allows the transmission of pictures with higher resolution for dramatically better picture and sound quality than currently available – called High Definition Television (HDTV) - or the transmission of several “standard definition” TV programs at once – called “multicasting.” “Standard definition” digital TV pictures would be similar in clarity and detail to the best TV pictures being received and displayed today using the current analog broadcast system and TV receivers. DTV technology can also be used to provide interactive video and data services that are not possible with “analog” technology.

Is HDTV the same thing as DTV?
HDTV is the highest quality of DTV, but it is only one of many formats. In addition to HDTV, the most common formats are Standard Definition Television (SDTV) and Enhanced Defini­tion Television (EDTV).

SDTV is the baseline display and resolution for both analog and digital. Transmission of SDTV may be in either the tradi­tional (4:3) or wide-screen (16:9) format. EDTV is a step up from Analog Television. EDTV comes in widescreen (16:9) or traditional (4:3) format and provides better picture quality than SDTV, but not as high as HDTV.

This article has been provided to APCUG by the author solely for publication by APCUG member groups. All other uses require the permission of the author (see e-mail address above).

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