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Consumers puzzled over need for converter boxes

February 18, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

To buy or not to buy - that is the question.

The digital TV converter boxes that some local retailers began selling in the past week are for analog TV owners who still use antennae to watch TV, experts said.

The box converts free over-the-air digital broadcasts so the broadcasts can be viewed on an analog TV, according to the Federal Communication's Commission's Web site www.dtv.gov.

So do all TV owners need to buy converter boxes?

No.

The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 requires full-power TV stations to switch to digital broadcasts on Feb. 17, 2009, to free up airwaves for better communication for emergency first responders such as police, fire and rescue services.

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Subscribers to cable, satellite TV (such as DirecTV) or other paid television services will not need to buy converter boxes to continue watching programming when the digital television transition occurs, according to industry experts and the U.S. National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA).

"Feb. 17, 2009, will be just another day," for DirecTV customers, said Robert Mercer, director of public relations for the satellite TV provider.

Verizon fiber-optic TV customers who use a set-top box are all set, according to Verizon spokeswoman Sandy Arnette.

In an e-mail to The Herald-Mail, Arnette said analog-TV users without a set-top box will receive one free converter from Verizon.

Many Hagerstown-area retailers, including Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Radio Shack and Kmart, reported they began selling converter boxes this past week.

The boxes were priced from $50 to $70, but the NTIA has a coupon program that knocks $40 off the price. The agency has funds for about 33 million coupons, according to NTIA public affairs specialist Bart Forbes.

Approximately 22 million coupons are available to anyone who applies. A second group of coupons will be reserved for consumers who do not have paid television service.

Forbes said more than 2.6 million applications have been accepted for 5 million coupons. Each household may apply for one or two coupons.

Forbes said the agency will begin mailing the discount coupons Tuesday to consumers whose applications have been approved. The coupons, which look like credit cards, are good for 90 days after being issued.

Some Democratic members of Congress are urging the NTIA to extend that deadline in case stores sell out of the boxes and consumers cannot find them, according to the Associated Press.

The converter box will allow analog customers who use antennae to continue to receive their TV programming. The converter might improve the picture quality, depending on the consumer's TV and antennae, Forbes said.

There has been some confusion over the digital conversion concerning digital and high-definition television, said Brian Lucas, spokesman for Best Buy. The converter boxes will allow analog customers to continue receiving TV programming when all broadcasters switch to a digital signal next February. But the converter will not provide those customers with high-definition viewing. They must purchase a high-definition television for that. High-definition television is a type of digital TV, but not all digital TV is high-def.

There are other ways consumers can receive the digital signals after the February 2009 conversion without buying a converter box. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce and Forbes, consumers can:

· Replace their analog TV with a TV that has a digital tuner.

· Connect their analog TV to a paid television service such as cable or satellite, so long as that service provides digital programming.

For more information

To apply for a $40 coupon toward the purchase of a converter, call the coupon hot line at 888-DTV-2009 (888-388-2009) or go to www.dtv2009.gov/ApplyCoupon.aspx.

To find retailers selling converter boxes, go to www.dtv2009.gov/VendorSearch.aspx.

To learn more about the digital TV transition, check out these Web sites:

National Telecommunications & Information Administration's Digital Television Transition and Public Safety site at www.ntia.doc.gov/dtvcoupon.

Coupon Program site at www.dtv2009.gov.

Federal Communications Commission's site for DTV at www.dtv.gov.

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