This is an expanded version of ”Digital Dilemma,” a Spectral Lines editorial published in IEEE Spectrum, October 2008.
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 converter boxes for what was supposedly the tiny minority of U.S. households that rely on over-the-air TV—that is, that don’t subscribe to a cable or satellite television service.
Turns out several of those assumptions were wrong. So far, about one-third of the fund has been drawn upon, in the form of some 13 million coupons, each worth $40 towards the purchase of a converter box. If my experience is typical, the coupons are just the first step in a conversion process that is neither painless nor, in the long run, cheap.
I ordered two coupon cards back in January; they arrived in April with an expiration date of 14 July. In June I purchased a $50 RCA converter box at Walmart, the only brand in stock. Radio Shack offers a different brand but was sold out.
Attaching the converter to a Mitsubishi television in the family room, on the first floor of my house, was straightforward, even though the setup includes a DVD player. I plugged my antenna’s cable into one port and ran the included cable from the converter box to an antenna port on the DVD. The box itself is tiny and unobtrusive, but watching digital television is going to use more power. For analog television I merely turned on the TV. Now I have to turn on the TV, turn on the DVD and set it to channel 3, and then turn on the converter box.
Once I did all that, I scanned for available channels. And here’s where the nightmare started. 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. I also got fuzzy but watchable reception for six UHF channels.
Using the converter box, I got great reception on one PBS station. That actually gave me four different video streams because it’s broadcasting multiple standard-definition programs instead of one high-definition program. In addition, I got reasonable reception on four Spanish- and Chinese-language channels. The digital pictures of two other networks, ABC and NBC, broke up constantly and were unwatchable. CBS had gone missing.