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The Big Conversion


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
September 8, 2008

On February 17, 2009, analog broadcast television will be gone forever in the United States. I've bought a fair number of devices that receive RF signals during my stay on this planet, and this is the first time that one of them is being rendered obsolete. Fortunately, my AM and FM radios, as well as the CB radios and the scanner that are buried somewhere in my basement, will continue to work indefinitely into the future. As for the XM radio in my car, I am not so optimistic.

What I am curious about is will happen on February 17, 2009. Will millions of people suddenly find themselves without television and stage an uprising? Or, might they think that civilization has come to an end and rejoice? I doubt it.. For one thing, the big conversion matters only to those who get signals that are broadcast through the air from earthbound towers. Cable, satellite, and Internet TV are wholly unaffected. Moreover, in its infinite munificence, Congress has allocated a big wad of money to subsidize the purchase of DTV converters that change most old-fashioned analog TV into digital (though not high definition) televisions. And then there are all the public service ads warning people of the switchover. If I've seen them a half-dozen times by now, I'd imagine any real TV viewer has seen them hundreds of times. 


There will be people with external antenna hook-ups who think they have (or are stealing) cable because all they see is a cable coming from their TV and going into in the wall, but no one is worrying about them.

Now all this conversion fuss could have been avoided if the FCC simply mandated that only digital-capable televisions be offered for the last five or ten years, but after being delayed a few times this whole digital conversion thing comes off as a last-minute affair. Until the last year or so, it was possible to go into major retailers and see television with shelf tags indicating that they were not capable of receiving a digital signal directly. In the past, the FCC made television manufacturers do all sort of things to promote UHF, from requiring that sets receive it to requiring their UHF tuners to "click" at every UHF station, so digital-ready tuners could have been mandated years ago. (By the way, cable TV was the savior of UHF because it placed those difficult-to-receive signals on the same footing with VHF signals, and giving us Ted Turner in the process.)

As I noted some time back, I am the proud owner of a 14-inch television that is a purely analog affair. I bought it around three years ago to replace a nearly 20-year-old 14-inch set that had required serious pounding on its side to work for the last 4 years of its life before it would fail to respond to any kind of assault. I rarely watch the set (or any TV for that matter) and so it made no sense to run cable to it. I replaced it with a dirt-cheap analog set because digital sets at that time were absurdly expensive and were destined to go down in price (as they did).

Early this year, the FCC announced its $40 converter box subsidy program. I signed up for the two coupons to which I was entitled (one for the TV and one for its VCR, also analog) and they came in the mail in fairly short order. They come will one catch—they expire in 90 days and once a coupon expires that's that, no more coupons for you.

Coupons in hand, I started looking for converter boxes, and that's where the fun begins. I couldn't find any. None, nowhere, except for a totally no-name converter at Radio Shack. Weeks past, still no boxes except for a few at the dreaded WalMart that garnered savagely negative reviews on the Net. On the weekend before the coupons expired, I bought Radio Shack's no-name converter, the Digital Stream DTX-9900, which at least received mixed reviews. It cost $59.99, so the coupon brought it down to $19.99 if you ignore the plentiful New York State tax. My other coupon "expired," however I suspect that it was recycled back into a pool so that some more deserving person would get it. Many people are miffed at the quick expiration during a time when boxes were difficult to find, but I had low expectations and so did not really care.

I had considered just scrapping the TV and getting a new digital one during my extended box quest. The big benefit to mankind would be that the new set would gobble up made less electricity than the old one. This is probably not a big deal for me, as the set sucks up more juice in its supposedly-off state than during all the time that I actually use it. For other people, however, it seems foolish for the government to promote old energy-wasting technology over new energy-efficient technology. But my coupon was not good toward a new energy-efficient set, nor even toward an HDTV converter box, just for a plain-vanilla low-def converter box. For $20 plus tax, it was worth a shot and I could always turn the experience into a commentary.

I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of the converter box. Back in the analog world, my set could get two VHF stations well, one VHF station marginally, and the UHF stations were almost all unwatchable. My antenna set-up is the standard issue VHF rabbit ears plus UHF loop and I am about 12 miles from the local broadcast towers with lots of intervening hills to screw up signals, especially UHF signals. Since digital TV is currently almost entirely UHF (something the FCC does not promote in its public service ads, nor do the ads warn people that on conversion day some UHF channels will be moving to VHF), I figured that I would be lucky to get digital TV with my existing freebie antenna systems.

Well, I was even more lucky. The two good VHF stations came in marvelously in digital and they brought with them three additional subchannels. The iffy VHF channel was another matter. Since digital is an on-off thing, if you don't get a station clearly, it tends to disappear entirely. Playing with the rabbit ears was enough to get a workable signal much of time. The problem with DTV is that the instant tuning feedback that comes with analog—the tiniest movement of the antenna brings any immediate change in the sound and picture—does not exist. Fortunately, the no-name box has signal strength meter, but the meter is anything but real-time, making it tricky and time-consuming to adjust the antenna to get a solid signal. Some of my old UHF channels now came in almost as clearly as the two good channels of VHF origin; however, two stations are still impossible to get at all.

When pictures come do in, the quality is great. On a 14-inch set, there is no visible benefit to a high-def digital picture over the lo-def one the converter box provides and low-def digital is vastly better than old over-the-air analog.

My generally positive experience with the conversion process, however, does not mean much for the typical rabbit-ears viewer. I am a trained engineer, or at least a close approximation to one. I program complicated universal remote controls for kicks. A normal person who might go into Best Buy and lasso one of their geeks to come to their home to set the converter box and get it work is going to find that the government-subsidized $20 box is the least of their expenses. I am impressed with the quality of the tuner in my converter box, so the good news is that lots of people might not need a potentially costly antenna upgrade. The bad news is that in all but the simplest set-ups, moving the cables around and getting everything set up just right takes about an hour. Getting their universal remote controls to work properly is another thing, especially for people who don't having learning remotes or those that update over the Internet. I doubt that even brand-new remote controls will have the codes for the new converter boxes.

The improvement in picture was not worth the time it took me to set things up, but that's all a sunk cost now. Although once the conversion is done, the government will be wasting less bandwidth on over-the-air television broadcasts than it was before, but it seems like a waste to have any television broadcast over the air in much of the United States. A big problem is that despite the FCC's touting of the free-market allocation of the airwaves, radio and television broadcasters are shielded from the free market and do not have to pay up to keep their frequencies from being used for more economical purposes. I hope that I live long enough to see my new DTV converter box itself become obsolete.

Next time, I will discuss another conversion, that from Windows XP to Windows Vista.

Copyright 2008 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to