Tech Q and A: How to Survive the Digital-TV Conversion

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Published January 21, 2009

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Every other week or so, FOXNews.com tries to solve your most vexing technology-related problems. Send your questions to TechQuestions@foxnews.com and we'll reply to selected ones in our next installment.

The Tech Q&A inbox was chock-full of questions about next month's move to digital television (DTV) broadcasts.

I think that the best use of this week's installment is to clear up, once and for all, what you need to do to be ready for the grand event.

Current status: The official date is Feb. 17, 2009. No analog TV signals will be allowed from that day forward, at least from the major stations. Small stations and "repeater stations" are not required to convert. More on this in a bit.

Hawaii made the switch last week — TV stations there are now all digital, all the time.

The early move was made, in part, to avoid disturbing the nesting habitat of the endangered dark-rumped petrel, which nests on an Oahu mountaintop also used by broadcast antennas. No, I am not making this up.

But the rest of the country may get a reprieve. There is legislation, currently before Congress and supported by President Obama, to push the conversion date to summer.

To borrow a word from former President Bush, Congress "misunderestimated" the cost of subsidizing the conversion, and we've run out of $40 rebate coupons, at least temporarily. Loyal readers will remember I encouraged everyone to get their converter boxes early!

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First, Some Basics

Q: Explain the difference between analog and digital signals.

A: "Analog," from a Greek word meaning "proportionate," implies that some sort of measurement must take place to convert the data — or signal — back to usable form.

The slide rule was an "analog computer" because it used the distance between the printed lines/numbers to make calculations.

Analog signals resemble their final output — the grooves on a record mimic sound waves, and analog TV transmissions follow patterns of light, dark and color.

"Digital," from the Latin word for "finger," makes sense if you understand that a computers only has one "finger." Its "digits" consist of zeroes or ones, off or on.

On a disk drive, the ones are recorded as magnetic spots, the zeroes as demagnetized spots. On CDs or DVDs, the spots reflect light, or don't reflect light.

Television signals can be coded as continuously varying amounts of radio energy — analog — or as positive blips of radio energy interspersed with blips of NO radio energy — digital.

The common hand gesture of one finger, often used when technology misbehaves, is neither analog nor digital. It has no effect on the technology, but generally makes you feel better.

Digital signals should produce a much clearer picture. But the downside is what's called the "cliff effect."

If an analog signal is weak, a TV can still display a picture badly, along with a lot of clutter sometimes called "snow."

If a digital signal gets too weak, a TV will be suddenly unable to display a picture at all. The signal "falls off a cliff" and the screen immediately goes dark.

Q: So how many people don't use cable or have a satellite dish and are going to be affected this new TV system?

A: According to HawaiiGoesDigital.com, "19.6 million households receive over-the-air signals exclusively in their homes, and 14.9 million households have secondary over-the-air TV sets in their bedrooms or kitchens. Overall, nearly 70 million television sets are at risk of losing their signals."

According to the Nielsen Ratings people, more than 9 million homes were not ready for the conversion as of October 15, 2008.

Q: When the switch from analog to digital starts in a month or so, will all broadcasts be in high definition automatically? Can analog even support high-def programming? How does a high-def signal differ from a regular signal?

A: "Not necessarily," "no," and "see the difference between analog and digital" above.

High-definition television (HDTV) can be broadcast digitally, as can SDTV (standard- definition television). It's a matter of how the signal is coded and sent, not what is encoded in the signal.

Q: My question is: If I have a HDTV and Dish Network, will I still need a converter box?

A: No. The HDTV should have a digital tuner built in. So even if you use a regular antenna to get local channels, not on Dish Network, it won't be a problem.

The "Too Far Away" Problem

Q: The converter box that I obtained from Wal-Mart will not work on our TV. The TV is located at our retirement property in East Texas. The manufacturer says that we may be too far from a transmitter and, therefore, the converter box will not work.

I tried to return the converter to Wal-Mart but they will not refund my money because it is past the 90-day return deadline. Computer records indicated that we purchased the converter in May and had to return it by August. We didn't even try the hookup until last week! Who knew anything about the converter not working if the TV is too far from a transmitter!

Q: We live in a rural area and receive TV signals through an outside antenna. We bought the converter box for the switch to digital, but have since been told that the digital signal will not be strong enough to be picked up by an antenna in our area and that we will probably have to switch to a satellite system. Is this true or false?

Q: Recently purchased a digital converter box and digital antenna. Very dissatisfied with the results. Receive fewer local channels than with the analog signal. In addition, any weather events affect the digital signal.

Q: We hooked up a TV converter for my parents. They live in northern Wisconsin and only receive 4 channels. With the converter attached, they lost 3 out of 4 of their regular channels and picked up different ones. What is going on with that?

A: First, remember that not all stations are sending out the digital signal yet, and the ones that are may be sending them on a different channel for the time being.

Many stations are sending a signal at reduced strength until the conversion. Smaller stations may not be sending a digital signal for some time.

I fear that what is sometimes blamed on "too far away" may, in fact, be a different problem altogether.

If you live in an outlying area, you first need to make a list of the stations that you normally receive, then see if they have converted or have yet to convert.

Here are two sites to help you with your homework: AntennaWeb (http://www.antennaweb.org) and LPTV Answers (http://www.lptvanswers.com).

On AntennaWeb, click on the "Choose an Antenna" button and enter as much address information as you care to provide. The minimum is your ZIP code.

The site will do a "reception calculation" and show you a "conservative" list of all of the major stations you should be able to receive, how far away, what day they will go live, and the best kind of antenna to use to receive them (shown as a color code).

The "LP" in LPTVAnswers stands for "Low Power" and gives details about stations that may not have to convert to digital at all. This site asks for only a ZIP code.

My daughter lives up in Utah. Coincidentally, DTV conversion day is also her birthday!

One of the major stations in her area, NBC affiliate KSL, is listed as "analog" on channel 5 and "digital" on channel 5.1 (assigned to what was UHF channel 38). They are currently broadcasting in both analog and digital.

The local Fox affiliate, on the other hand, is listed as digital 28.1 (assigned to UHF channel 28) and will not be broadcasting digital until the conversion date.

This means that if she connected her converter today, she would see NBC but not Fox (gasp!)

Further, there are several low-power stations in her area, including KBTU and KUCL. She wouldn't see them, either, with some digital converter boxes.

The solution is to get a converter with "analog pass-through," which gives you the capability of receiving digital and analog at the same time — the best of both worlds, so to speak.

With such a converter, she could watch both versions of KSL until the conversion (but only the digital version after), could watch Fox both before and after and watch KBTU/KUCL from now until they need to convert.

LPTV Answers also gives a list of converters with the analog pass-thru feature.

If this doesn't solve the problem, then perhaps you really do have a "too far away" problem. For further information, visit the FCC's Web page on the issue (http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/dtvantennas.html).

New Technical Terms: Gazinta and Gazonta

Q: My converter box is attached to a set of rabbit ears and I am not receiving a picture. Is there a good outside antenna that I might get that will pick up the picture?

Q: I use rabbit ears to get my TV reception and live approximately 40 miles away from New York. I hooked up a converter box to my TV and don't receive anything from New York. Someone told me that I live too far away to receive the digital signals because they are weaker, and will need to put an antenna on my roof. Is this true? Are the digital signals weaker than the analog? I've seen new digital antennas on sale in stores that go on top of TVs like the rabbit ears. Will those work?

Q: My sister has a small TV with a built-in antenna. I have been told that one of the converter boxes would not work on her TV. Is there a converter box that she could purchase so she would be able to watch her TV after February?

Q: I live in an apartment complex and have used an indoor antenna with an amplifier for years. Sure, the picture isn't that clear, but this setup has always been good enough to pick up between 4-6 channels (depending on the weather and atmospheric conditions).

I sent in for the coupon as instructed and now have two converter boxes. When I connected the boxes, my two televisions now only pick up the local public broadcasting station (PBS). I've tried to manually enter the channel numbers for stations that I've received in the past, but I get a message saying the signal is not found.

A: "Gazinta" is a term that sometimes applies to mathematics — for example, three "gazinta" 12 four times.

For purposes of this discussion, we need to talk about the signal that "gazinta" your TV set. The current analog signal actually comes in two flavors: Channels 2 thru 13 are said to be VHF (very high frequency), while channels above 13 are said to be UHF (ultra high frequency).

Many "rabbit ear" antennas are actually two antennas in one — the long pieces that give "rabbit ears" their name are for VHF reception. The part that looks like a small circle made from hanger wire is for UHF reception. This is an oversimplification, of course, but you get the basic idea.

The problem is in snatching that new digital signal — which will be mostly UHF — out of the air, converting it to analog (the job of the converter box), and feeding it to the back of your television in such a way that analog signal "gazinta" your analog television.

If your rabbit ears are built-in, you need to turn the set around, look at the back, and see if there's some sort of connector that an external antenna "gazonta" (that is, connects to). It should be marked "ANT," "EXT. ANT.," "AUX.ANT.," "Video 1" or some such.

It might look like two large-headed screws, fairly close to each other (spade lugs). It might look like a metal post, about the size of the eraser on a large, elementary-school pencil, with threads (coaxial or RF connector). It might look like three small connectors, red, white and yellow (composite connector).

If your TV doesn't have any "gazontas" in the back, then I'm sorry, but you will need to repurpose your old TV as an aquarium or boat anchor or uber-paperweight.

If it has 'em, then you need to make sure that they match up with the "gazontas" in the back of the converter box. Your rabbit-ear antenna hooks to the input "gazonta" of the converter box, and a new cable connects the output "gazonta" of the converter box to the antenna "gazonta" of your TV.

Once you're sure it's all hooked up correctly — especially the UHF antenna — go back and read the "Too Far Away" answer, above, about how to determine which channels you ought to be seeing. You may need a new antenna to get things working properly.

What About the DVD Player?

Q: Do you need the digital converter to just watch VCR movies or DVD movies? Can you still watch these on an analog TV?

A: No, you do not need the converter box to watch VCR movies or DVD movies. If you can watch 'em now, you'll be able to watch 'em after. The DTV conversion affects the cable connecting your antenna to your TV, not the cable from the VCR/DVD to your TV.

If you've got your VCR set up to record live television, then it might be the same cable. In this setup, you will unplug the TV input on the VCR and hook it to the TV input of the converter box. Then run a cable between TV output of the converter box and TV input of the VCR.

This, by the way, may resolve any mismatch problem you have between the converter box gazontas and the TV gazontas.

Q: Both of my television sets are older, and subsequently I had to purchase and install digital rectifiers when I bought a DVD player. My question is this: Will these rectifiers function the same as the mandated converter boxes we are being forced to use, or will I have to add yet another piece of hardware to the ever-growing pile of detritus behind my TV?

A: The pile will get bigger. You may want to consider putting your new converter box somewhere you can see it, or you won't be able to use the converter box remote to change channels.

I'm assuming that by "rectifier" you mean a little conversion device that converts the coaxial connector into spade lugs, so you can connect them to the two screws your "older" sets have as the antenna gazonta.

If that's true, you'll want to go down to the hardware store and buy one of those little splitter devices that have two coaxial connectors on one side, one coaxial connector on the other. The "rectifier" screws onto the one-connector side; converter box and DVD screw onto the two-connector side.

Troubleshooting: So if you've got a shiny, brand-new converter box but you're having problems with it, let's arrange the above answers into some sort of procedure for troubleshooting.

The best strategy for isolating problems is to eliminate each component which could cause the problem — until you get to the component that really is causing the problem.

Step One. Is it the DTV signal? Go back and review the "Too Far Away" answer, and come up with a list of channels you can reasonably expect to receive. Call the stations on the list and see if they're broadcasting DTV at reduced power.

Step Two. Is it the antenna? Go back and review the answers to the Gazinta and Gazonta questions. Does your current antenna allow for UHF reception? If the answer is "no" — or if you simply aren't sure — consider purchasing a new antenna, using the recommendations on the same Web sites you sent to in Step one. Same answer if your antenna (internal or external) is old.

Step Three. Is it the antenna-to-converter connection? Consider using a different cable if there's any reason to be suspicious of the one you're using.

Step Four. Is it the converter box? Review the installation instructions that came with the converter box and make sure it is installed correctly. Pay attention to which channel your TV is supposed to be set to while you're using the converter box to switch channels.

Step Five. Is it the converter-to-TV connection? Again, make sure it's installed correctly, and consider using a different cable.

Step Six. Is it the TV? Does the TV still show everything else that might be hooked to it? VCR movies? DVDs? Does the channel setting match the converter box?

If you haven't located the source of the trouble after all these steps, consider calling a professional.

Miscellaneous

Q: I still have my two digital-TV converter-box coupons but realized they have expired. Can I still use them?

A: No. Go to this site (http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/874431/dtv_converter_box_coupon_expired_steps.html?cat=39) for a list of steps you can take.

Q: I have a 92-year-old grandmother who knows very little about the new wave of life. The computer/TV problem she is facing is very frightening to her. Could you please let me know how to do the first-come first-serve sign-up for the rebate coupons — she lives on a fixed income, she can't go buy a new TV nor does she have money to get a box. She is really in need of the coupon for this box.

A: May I put you in touch with the reader above? No, that probably wouldn't do you any good. There ought to be some assistance programs available for seniors, although none come to mind at present.

Q: We got my mother a converter box for Christmas. Hooked it up and she was not able to find any channels she was used to watching, like Channel 4 in Greenville, S.C. and Channel 7 in Spartanburg, S.C. Also, she had to use two remotes — one to turn it on and adjust the volume and the other to change channels. My mother is 90 years old and could not understand — just too complicated for her. We had to disconnect the box so she could watch TV. What to do when things change over?

A: See the "Too Far Away" answer, above. For the two remotes, may I suggest that you trade in the converter you purchased for a Zenith DTT901? It comes with a universal remote, which can probably be programmed to turn the TV on and off and control the volume. It will be a different remote, but it will only be one remote.

Q: How will the radio-frequency spectrum that is now being used to broadcast analog television information be used (or reassigned) after the "conversion" on Feb. 17th?

A: It will be sold to the highest bidder and used for other purposes.

I believe that the main goal of the conversion exercise is to free up what is called the 700-MHz spectrum. The lower 700-MHz spectrum — what used to be UHF channels 52-59 — was reallocated in 2002. The upper 700 MHz spectrum — currently UHF channels 60-67 — will be reallocated to public safety and commercial broadband networks. The non-public safety portion is expected to fetch $10 billion, but could go for as high as $30 billion.

This is the answer to the question "Why couldn't they fire up the old analog channels in a weather emergency?" It's going to be used for something else.

Feedback

I read your Q&A regarding the portable digital-converter box. I was wondering if you've heard about the following box: the Tricod Kingbox k8v1. I'm not sure if you can use the government coupon with it, but with a 12-volt input, that's definitely an option. Eight triple-A batteries and you're in business.

Since it would be used on a portable TV, I wouldn't expect battery life to be that big of a problem. I would imagine something like this would be used mainly for travel, so you'd spend maybe an hour or two on a bus, train or airport terminal. A car outlet would be perfect to power this unit, so no need for batteries on car trips.

I haven't tried it out and I have yet to find any reviews on it. I don't know how tech-savvy your readers are but I would think it would be easy and relatively inexpensive to clips some wires and create a power source for this. Who knows — maybe as the switchover date approaches you'll start seeing videos on YouTube on how to make your converter portable.

Thanks and a hat tip to Jose in Fort Worth, Texas. A review can be found here (http://www.gadgetreview.com/2008/08/kingbox-k8v1-atsc-tuner-digital-converter-box-8-shipped.html).

Guy R. Briggs is a member of the Nerds On Site international IT service team and is based in Los Angeles.

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