It sounds so easy: Apply for a coupon, take the coupon to buy a digital converter box, then go hook up the box to your old analog TV set.
You have made the transition to digital TV.
I caught a whiff of trouble when our decade-old analog set died in February 2007. I bought a new set with digital and analog tuners, but it was unable to pick up any digital signal with any regularity and even then I received only one intermittently: WLBZ Channel 2.
So I had a suspicion I needed more than a digital converter box.
More than $1,000 later in new equipment and labor costs along with dozens of hours spent doing research, I found I was correct in my suspicion.
If you still get a TV signal with an antenna — be it the rabbit-ear variety or a rooftop model — and you would rather not pay a monthly cable or satellite TV bill if you can avoid it, this cheat sheet is for you. It cannot cover every aspect of how to handle the transition to digital, but it will give you a place to start and suggestions of where to look or whom to call or write if you have more queries.
Step 1: Do your homework … now
It seems wrong that you need to do homework to keep “free” TV, but if you want to make your best attempt to stay with an over-the-air signal, this is a good place to start.
Visit some of the Web sites mentioned, and if you don’t have Internet access, visit your local library or ask a friend or relative to do some of the work for you, such as checking antennaweb.org for your transmitter tower coordinates.
Most of all, don’t wait. The switch will be thrown Feb. 17, 2009, and that is closer than it seems. If it turns out you need a new antenna on your roof, you don’t want to do that work when the structure might be covered in snow and ice.
“We want to urge people who need converter boxes to get them now, get them set up, aim their antennas properly and start enjoying digital TV well before the … transition date,” said Suzanne Goucher, president and CEO of the Maine Association of Broadcasters. “We want to make sure that if, for example, someone has to get out on the roof to adjust an antenna, they can do so well before the snow flies.”
It is important to recognize from the start that there are some significant differences between analog and digital signals. We are all familiar with snowy pictures that sometimes occur on analog channels; it is a sign that the signal is weak.
With digital, a weak signal can do a number of things. The picture can freeze up and just sit there on the one frame, with no sound, until it receives a signal it can translate. Or parts of the picture can “pixelate,” where it seems like pieces of the picture go fuzzy or seem out of sync with the rest of the picture. Or you could get no signal at all, just a blank screen.
Digital signals are more sensitive to weather conditions, and something as simple as the leaves on your favorite maple that stands between your antenna and the transmitter tower can affect the quality of the signal. Anthony Delfin, owner of Patriot Satellite of Holden and the man who installed a new antenna at my house, said clear digital signals are dependent on an unobstructed line of sight between the antenna and the transmitter tower. Put something in the way and you may not be able to get a signal no matter what you try.
“That’s been the biggest frustration,” said Judy Horan, WLBZ 2 president and general manager. Viewers experiencing trouble with digital reception “used to see a little bit and now they can’t see anything.”
Step 2: Examine your TV
Do you have an analog TV? If you can’t answer that for certain, then you need to find out.
The best way to do that, according to Horan, is to check the back of your TV set for information on the label.
You should look for a set of letters: ATSC or NTSC.
ATSC, which stands for Advanced Television Systems Committee, signals that the tuner inside the TV is digital.
NTSC, which is the National Television Standards Committee, is the label for a tuner that is analog.
If you can’t get to the label on the back of your set, then check out the manual that came with your TV. There may be a specifications page that lists the type of tuner.
Another way to tell is how you change channels. If you never have had to press anything like a decimal point to reach a channel, then likely you have an analog set.
Or if your set is more than a couple of years old, chances are good that you have an analog tuner.
Step 3: Sign up for the coupons
If you have an analog TV and don’t intend to buy a new one with a digital ATSC tuner, then you will need to get the government-sponsored coupons to help defray the cost of purchasing a digital converter box.
Each household is eligible for two coupons, each worth $40, that will come to you in the form of a gift card. Once you receive the cards, you can go buy the converter boxes and use the gift card at the time of purchase.
There are two ways to sign up for these: Go to www.dtv2009.gov or call 888-DTV-2009.
I signed up by the Internet last spring, but I did run into some trouble.
When it asked me for my mailing address, I typed in my P.O. box number because it is my mailing address. As soon as I hit the submit button, I got a message that I was being refused because the government will not send the coupons to a P.O. box, only to a street address.
However, it gave me the opportunity to protest the decision, which I did.
I had to explain why I should get the coupons, so I wrote something like “While my street address is [this], my mail has to go to the P.O. box to be delivered.” I also wrote that I hadn’t read the fine print, which I missed on the form page where it stated it would not ship any cards to a P.O. box.
Because of this, I had to wait an extra couple of weeks before I was sent an e-mail telling me the cards would be mailed out shortly.
Keep in mind one other thing: You have only 90 days from the issue date to use the cards before they expire. So if you received yours in June and still haven’t bought a box, then the cards have run out.
Step 4: Research your antenna location
Before you do anything with the antenna, be it indoor or out, you need to visit antennaweb.org or www.tvfool.com.
These two Web sites have a simple form you fill in, asking for your physical address and a question about your current antenna, such as its height from the ground. Answer the few questions as accurately as possible and submit it. Within seconds, these sites will give you a wealth of information about your location and what you should be receiving for signals, both digital and analog.
At antennaweb.org, you will receive a map of your street address and the direction of all the TV signals available to you. This information comes from several sources, including topographical maps that take into account whether you are on top of a hill or there is a big hill in your antenna’s line of sight to the transmitter. It also will give you the compass headings so you can figure out which way the antenna should point.
Additionally, antennaweb.org has detailed information about the strength of the signals you should be receiving. In fact, these color-coded signals will tell you what type of antenna you should have to best pick up the signal because the labels on new antennas are color-coded so you can find the right antenna for your location.
From www.tvfool.com, you can get a similar report, but with slightly different information. This site will give you the kilowatt power of the transmitter and calculate the predicted receiver strength of the signal at your location. It describes the path the signal takes, such as line of sight, and also color codes the final chart, although it does not correspond to the color codes on the antenna labels. The color codes group the signals according to their strength at your location.
Once you’ve done that, you are better prepared to figure out your antenna needs.
Step 5: Examine your antenna
First, let’s discuss VHF vs. UHF.
The four main analog sta-tions in the Bangor area are in the VHF, or very high frequency, range, which is from Channel 2 to 13.
All but one of those stations are broadcasting their digital channels in the UHF, or ultra-high frequency, range from Channel 14 to 83.
If you have an antenna that is a VHF receiver only, then you likely won’t be able to pick up the digital Channel 2, 5 or 7, even if you hook up a digital converter box to your antenna because they are at 25, 19 and 14 on the UHF range, respectively.
However, by this time next year, it is likely that all of the Bangor area stations will be back in the VHF range (see the accompanying story for more about each station’s plan).
That means if you want to stay with your VHF antenna, you won’t be able to get all of the local stations digitally now and won’t know whether you can get all of them until well after the Feb. 17, 2009, switch.
The advantage to a VHF-UHF antenna is that you may be able to get all of the signals now, along with any low-power analog signals, such as Fox 22. Those low-power stations are not required by law to switch to digital in 2009, so you still could receive some analog signals after the transition.
What if you are using an in-door antenna right now?
If you have a VHF-UHF an-tenna and you live fairly close to the transmitter towers, such as in Bangor, it is possible you can pick up the digital signals.
Steve Hiltz, WABI program director, said he just connected a set with the converter box using rabbit ears in Bangor and it worked OK. There was a lot of moving the antenna around to hunt for the best signal, he said, but it worked.
“It was almost like 1953 or ’54,” he said, reminding him of the early days of TV when you had to work at finding the signal.
What if you are using a roof-top antenna for your signal?
I knew that my antenna was several decades old and was a VHF-only receiver. If you don’t know what you have for an outdoor antenna, I don’t know of any easy way to tell without plugging it into a converter box to see what it can pick up.
But an old antenna can be corroded, the connectors can deteriorate over time, and weather-ravaged cables can affect the quality of signal reception, so these are factors to weigh when deciding whether you need to upgrade your out-door antenna and cabling.
Again, there is no guarantee you can get a signal even if you upgrade your antenna and no way to tell before you do, although visiting antennaweb.org or www.tvfool.com and checking your location can help determine whether you should have some success in receiving signals.
Tomorrow: The last five steps include buying the right converter box and testing it correctly, examining your recording devices and considering options other than TV by antenna.