Digital-Only Television Is On Its Way - Are You Ready?

An example of a digital signal converter box (file).
An example of a digital signal converter box (file).

You've probably been hearing a lot about the upcoming switch that television stations are about to make from analog to digital signals. Well, now is the time to start thinking about upgrading your TV set if you have an older one.

Some of you are already prepared for the big switch, but others may need some help from a little box, called a converter box.

Right now, television stations are broadcasting 2 signals: the old version, which is called analog, and the new version, called digital. It's more of a computer-like code.

About a year from now, on February 17, 2009, the FCC has mandated that all TV stations broadcast in digital only, and pull the plug on the analog signal. This transition is not about high definition. Broadcasters only have to deliver a TV signal that's digital, not one that's high definition.

How is this going to affect you, the television viewer? To figure out that out, you need to have some answers to some very important questions.

The first is, did you buy your TV before 1998? All TVs built before 1998 are analog, so if you did, you'll definitely need something to convert your signal.

The second is: If you bought your television after 1998, is it high definition (or HD) ready?

A TV with HD built in includes an ATSC tuner. Your set has to have one to receive a digital signal.

Check your television's owner's manual if you're not sure.

You also need to know how you receive your TV signal. If you get your TV through satellite, or a cable provider, you're already set up for the big switch.

The folks that are going to be impacted by this transition the most are those  that don't have a digital tuner in their TV or have an older analog TV and receive their TV signal through an antenna. If you're one of these folks, you're going to need a converter box - and the government is going to help you pay for it.

Right now, you can apply for up to 2 $40 coupons per household for a converter box that will cost you around $60.

Basically, the box takes the digital signal in and converts it into an analog signal. It's a kind of translator - it'll take the language that the government has mandated - digital signal - and convert it into the language that your older TV may speak - analog signal - so that you can watch your favorite programs.

The Converter Box Coupon Program began in January. As of the beginning of March 2008, over a third of the coupons available had already been claimed.

You can click here to read more information about The Big Switch, sponsored by KLTV-TV and Don's TV & Appliance.

You can also call the Coupon Program with requests on their 24-hour hotline at 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009), TTY 1-877-530-2634 (English), or TTY 1-866-495-1161 (Spanish).

Or, you can mail a coupon application to: PO BOX 2000, Portland, OR 97208-2000.

You can even fax a coupon application to 1-877-DTV-4ME2 (1-877-388-4632)

Administrators of the program say it will give out up to 33 million coupons, accepting applications through March 31st, 2009.

The first of the credit card like coupons began arriving in mailboxes in February.

Cathryn Khalil, reporting.