Don’t let your box go blank

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The upcoming switch to digital television, or DTV, could potentially leave you stranded, without any reception. Here’s what you need to know in order to prepare your household.

A new law requires all television stations to switch their broadcasts from analog to digital format on Feb. 17, 2009. If you get television reception by cable or satellite, you don’t have to change anything. If you have a newer, digital TV, the technology is already built into your TV.

About 22 percent of Twin Cities households get their reception over the air, according to the Nielsen Co., a worldwide marketing information provider. If you are among these households, you need to do one of three things to keep your television working after February 17:

1) purchase a converter box for your existing TV,
2) switch to cable or satellite, or
3) buy a new TV.

Converter boxes and antennas

A converter box will allow your TV to receive digital signals. Typically these boxes cost $40-$70. The government will provide each household with two coupons, each worth $40, towards the purchase of converter boxes. You can apply for your coupons at https://www.dtv2009.gov. Coupons expire 90 days after they are mailed, so it is important to use the coupons soon after you get them. You can use one coupon per box.

Not all converter boxes are equal. A model which works well in Northeast Minneapolis may not work as well across town. Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) has reviews of converter boxes. that you can sort by zip code, so you can read what works well in your neighborhood.

A converter box is only part of what you need. Part two is an antenna to pick up the signals. These can range in price from $10 for a simple indoor “rabbit ear” style, to more than $120 for an outdoor kind. If you need someone to come install it, you’re looking at about $500 for a rooftop antenna, according to Best Buy retailers.

Most digital signals will be broadcast in UHF, or ultra high frequency. The classic “rabbit ears” are designed to pick up VHF, or very high frequency, signals. Hoop-shaped antennas are better for picking up UHF signals. You may get better reception with a hoop-shaped antenna, if you are using an indoor style, said Lorena Duarte, media relations specialist at Twin Cities Public Television.

“Get ready now, don’t wait until February,” Duarte said.

If you set up your box as soon as possible, you will have time to work out any problems that may occur. Try what you have at home first. If there are problems, look into getting a more powerful antenna or an outdoor one, Duarte advised.

Setting up the converter box and antenna

You may get a signal in some areas of your house, such as by a window, but not in others. Buildings or other objects between your house and the broadcast signal will affect reception as well. If you live in a valley, or are in the middle of an apartment building, surrounded by concrete, you may have a harder time receiving a signal. This means that people living in different areas will have success with different converter boxes and antennas.

If you need help setting up a box, TPT offers a video showing how to do it. This video is shown in English, Hmong, Somali, and Spanish. The rest of the Web site explaining the switch is available in 11 languages.

Outside the box: Cable, satellite, or a new TV

Converter boxes get most of the attention in preparing for the switch to nationwide DTV. They seem to be the first option for people with antenna TV reception.

The second choice is to switch to cable or satellite. This is a more expensive option. A switch to basic cable would cost about $13 each month, plus a one-time installation fee of $30. If you are hooking up more than one television it would cost more, according to Comcast, the Minneapolis cable service provider. The minimum, for a single TV, is more than $180 for the first year.

Buying a new, DTV-ready TV set would cost anywhere from $150 on up. You may also need to purchase an antenna, if you do not already have one, to pick up the television signal, the same as with a converter box.

Why DTV?

So, if there is so much that needs to be done to prepare, why are we switching in the first place? The government decided to make these changes to free up air waves. Some will be reserved for emergency police or fire communications. The remainder will be sold to private companies, according to the government DTV Web site.

The switch to DTV will also allow broadcast stations to offer several channels of digital programming at the same time, in the same airwave spectrum that formerly supported only one analog program.

“[DTV] is a great thing,” Duarte said. “It gives channels more opportunity to put forth programs, but people are really at risk of losing TV.”

Duarte suggested helping your neighbor with the change, especially elderly, low income, or non-English speaking households, who are most at risk. Anything from giving away unused coupons, to driving someone to the store, to helping set up the converter box could help them keep their televisions working.

Kristen Anderson is a journalism student at the University of Minnesota and an intern with the Twin Cities Daily Planet.