Going forward, HD GURU will occasionally publish articles in a series called “Back to Basics,” that will provide rudimentary information regarding digital television and HDTV.

Part 1 details the transition and exposes the lies major cable providers are telling their existing and potential subscribers to con them into purchasing unwanted, extra-cost services and boxes. Parts 2 and 3 reviews DTV converter boxes and indoor antennas.

Addendum- added August 4, 2008 in Bold At the End of the article

What Is the DTV Transition?

On February 17, 2009 at 11:59:59 PM local time, TV broadcasters must shut off their (high powered), decades old analog over-the-air TV transmissions.

Broadcasters began transmitting digital TV signals in the late 1990s. Today, most broadcasters transmit simultaneously in both digital and analog.

Only high-powered digital TV transmissions will be permitted after the analog shutdown, though limited numbers of low powered analog transmitters or repeaters (generally used for rural areas or small sized broadcasters) may continue to operate.

The Lies of the Cable Providers

After the analog shut-off, cable providers have three options: they can send only digital signals to their customers, thus forcing owners of older analog sets who have basic service and connect their cable directly to their sets to rent digital cable boxes; they can convert the digital signals to analog at their “head end” and send it to analog subscribers who would then be able to view local and basic cable channels (like CNN) without renting a digital set top box, as they did pre-digital transition or they can offer a “passive” basic low cost digital to analog converter box to subscribers that will use their TV’s built-in analog tuner to receive cable programing.

However, there have been stories circulating that some cable companies may be using the confusion surrounding the digital transition to scare customers into renting digital cable boxes.I called NY metro area cable television provider Cablevision, telling the sales representative Jason that I was interested in subscribing to cable, but that I did not want to use a cable box; I just wanted whatever channels I could receive plugging the cable directly into my TV.

He told me that while there currently are analog channels that can be viewed that way, I should get a digital cable box now, because as of February 2009, “due to government regulation,” cable will no longer carry analog channels. He added that the federal government was forcing subscribers into getting digital cable boxes, so I might as well get one sooner rather than later.

This is simply not true. Nothing in the government-mandated digital transition prevents cable providers from continuing to offer customers unscrambled analog signals.

Some cable companies have apparently made a revenue-enhancing business decision and are using the digital transition as cover and the government as a scapegoat to get customers to add digital cable boxes.

Switching customers over to extra-cost digital cable and monthly fee digital cable boxes increases revenue, as does the availability of impulse pay-per-view, video-on-demand and other extra-cost services.

However, while few if any cable providers have announced plans to discontinue providing analog signals, there is an incentive to do so in the future. Each bandwidth-hogging analog channel eliminated frees up sufficient bandwidth to add six standard definition digital channels.

While the additional channels offer increased value to some cable customers, the ones stuck in the analog domain, usually the poorest among them, will end up paying the most since they will then be forced to rent a box.

I called Cablevision’s media relations department and asked why their sales people are using the “government regulation” excuse to get customers to transition to digital (friends and family members of mine currently receiving Cablevision’s analog service have gotten the sales pitch).

The Cablevision spokesman denied that salespeople have been so trained and followed up with this emailed statement:

“There is no direct connection between the digital transition of broadcast television stations that will occur across the nation in early 2009 and Cablevision’s decision to transition away from the duplicate analog feeds of a certain number of channels that we already carry in digital format.  Neither our customer service training, nor our customer communications, link the two in any way. Our customers service representatives speak to thousands of customers on myriad of issues every day and it is certainly possible that someone misspoke, and if that is the case we apologize.”

I contacted Time Warner Cable (TWC) NY today and spoke to Gay, a TWC sales representative.  Gay said TWC has just dropped all their unscrambled analog cable channels (i.e. CNN, Nickelodeon, Lifetime TBS etc) and has replaced those channels with digital versions that will require a digital cable box for each TV in your home.  The rate for this standard service tier remains $14.25 a month, however subscribers must pay an additional $7.35 a month for every cable box they rent.  The only channels that remain in analog are the local broadcast stations (CBS, NBC, FOX etc.) reducing the number of channels available without using a digital cable box from 74 to 13  (according to the chart on the TWC website.).  She continued, telling me the broadcast channels on TWC will have to go digital in February 2009 “because of federal regulations” requiring all subscribers to pay $7.35 a month for cable box for each television in your home.  She added this is by government mandate and not something Time Warner is doing as a company.

Has your local cable company told you that you need to upgrade to digital because of new government regulations? If so, and if you would like to share your experience, please feel free to add a comment below.

Why the DTV Transition?

There’s been a great deal of misinformation written about the DTV transition, which was mandated in a law Congress passed and President Bush signed in early 2006. Despite what’s been written too often in the mainstream press and elsewhere, digital over-the-air broadcasts use the same amount of bandwidth (6MHz) as the analog channels that are being shut down. However, the law strips away the UHF spectrum above channel 51, once reserved for television broadcasting, much of which has been auctioned off for other uses, such as wireless services, (or set aside for emergency transmissions and first responders, etc.), thus providing the government with much-needed revenue ($19.592 billion).  The broadcasters that are currently transmitting signals above channel 51 have been reassigned to another TV channel, effective on DTV transition day.
The benefits of digital broadcasting are well known to HD GURU readers: signals are immune to “snow,” “ghosting” and other analog artifacts and of course digital broadcasts can be (but are not required to be) in high-definition.

Who Will Be Affected By the Analog Shutoff and Lose TV Reception?

Contrary to what some cable TV providers have been telling consumers, the only TVs affected are those that receive over-the-air transmissions via either outdoor or indoor antennas. If you get your TV signal from your local cable provider or satellite (DirecTV or Dish Network) you needn’t do anything to prepare for transition day.

If you have an HDTV or standard definition television (defined as a display with a built-in tuner) manufactured after March 1, 2007 your set already has a digital over-the-air tuner built-in and you simply need to scan in the digital channels as per the TV maker’s instruction manual (after connecting to an appropriate antenna) in order to view them. If you have a HDTV made before 3/1/07 it may have a built-in digital tuner (look for a ATSC logo on the front). Consult the owner’s manual or the set maker.

If you have a pre-2007 analog TV and want to continue to view free over-the-air broadcasts you will need to purchase a DTV signal converter (also know as a digital to analog converter box) and attach it to your existing TV antenna (assuming it can receive both VHF and UHF channels) to continue to view over-the-air terrestrial broadcasts.

What Does a Converter Box Cost?

Most sell for $59.99, though there are websites that sell boxes for as little as $42.99, plus shipping. You can save $40 per box using the government subsidized TV Box Converter Program (maximum 2 coupons.)

How Do You Get Converter Box Coupons?

They are available through the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s  (NTIA) “TV Converter Box Coupon Program.” Any household may request up to two $40 coupons, redeemable at participating retailers and on-line merchants. $40 will be deducted from the price of each box. You can apply for your coupon(s) either online at ww.DTV.gov or by calling the NTIA program at 888-DTV-2009.

Addendum-I spoke with Ron Parver at the Media Bureau of the FCC. He confirmed  cable providers can opt to discontinue all (including local broadcast station) analog channels as of Feb. 17, 2009. 

If the providers maintain analog signals on their system, and do not have retransmission agreement with a given a local broadcaster, the cable provider must simulcast an  unscrambled analog verion of the station’s signal for three years. 

Parver added the cable providers that opt to go all digital and discontinue all analog signals are under no obligation to provide “free” digital cable boxes, they may continue to rent boxes at addtional cost to all customers that want to maintain their respective cable subscriptions.

Copyright ©2008 Gary Merson/HD Guru®  All rights reserved. HD GURU is a registered trademark. The content and photos within may not be distributed electronically or copied mechanically without specific written permission.