When the U.S. Congress voted in 2006 to stop over-the-air broadcasts of analog television on 17 February 2009, it assured the public that going digital would be cheap and painless. It allocated US $1.5 billion to help fund the purchase of converter boxes for what was supposedly the tiny minority of U.S. households that don’t subscribe to a cable or satellite television service. But if my experience is typical, the coupons are just the first step in a conversion that will be neither painless nor, in the long run, cheap.
I ordered two coupon cards back in January. They arrived in April, and in June I purchased a $50 RCA converter box at Wal-Mart. A different brand at Radio Shack was sold out.
The television’s built-in analog tuner had gotten great reception on all the major networks, a local nonaffiliated television station, and a Spanish-language channel—all in the VHF band—and six fuzzy but watchable UHF channels.
Using the RCA converter box, I got great reception on one PBS-affiliate channel. This gave me four choices of programming, because the affiliate broadcasts multiple standard-definition programs instead of one high-definition program. Unfortunately, the PBS station was KTEH, out of San Jose, Calif., instead of San Francisco’s award-winning KQED. In addition, I got reasonable reception on four Spanish- and Chinese-language channels. But ABC and NBC, two of the three major U.S.w networks, broke up constantly and were unwatchable, while CBS went missing entirely.
I went back to Radio Shack with my remaining coupon and ended up with a $60 Digital Stream converter. The connection process was the same as for the RCA box. The on-screen graphics are a little nicer, but I never found a comprehensive program guide, which made channel selection difficult. And the digital reception? No better.
Like most people who watch broadcast television, I get my signals through an ancient antenna on my roof—a bent, cobwebbed, aluminum monstrosity that is, it turns out, optimized for VHF signals. Most digital channels come in on the UHF band. So I next installed a $60 indoor RCA Flat Antenna. No improvement.