DIGITAL YIN-YANG -------------- John Pazmino NYSkies Astronomy Inc www.nyskies.org email@example.com 2008 November 16
Introduction ---------- Earlier in 2008 I explained the shift from analog television broadcast to digital signal. The change must be complete by 17 February 2009, at which time analog signal ceases forever. This renders a an analog television worthless for receiving broadcast shows. It can be enjoyed for shows sent to it by cable or satellite. It is ONLY the thru-the-air signal that's shut off next year. In fact there is a two-stage project. First is to terminate use of analog signaling for television and second is to bodily transfer the TV channels to a new band of the EM spectrum. Both conspire to kabosh casual use of an analog TV receiver via an over-the-air antenna.
Two main choices -------------- In early 2008 the Federal Communications Commission, administering the analog-to-digital switch, opened a coupon service for converter boxes. The coupon, obtainable thru a special website 'www.dtv2009.gov' applies $40 toward the price of a converter box. The box acts like a VCR or cable box in that it is interposed between the antenna and the television. The thru-the-air digital signal is massaged by the circuit in the box into an analog signal, which is fed into your analog television. The TV 'sees' only the converted analog signal and plays it to the screen and speaker. The other option was to obtain a brand new digital television, almost all being of the flat-screen style. The units have circuits for both analog and digital signal so you can play them before a station changes over. The analog capability is also useful for attaching older accessories, like a camcorder or VCR, to play their recordings. Remember that all of this applies to you IF AND ONLY IF you now receive television shows thru an antenna, whether outside of your house or as rabbit-ears at the TV unit. If you NOW get TV reception thru a cable or satellite service YOU DO NOT NEED ANYTHING and you NEED DO NOTHING. You may continue reading this article for pleasure.
Digital TV units -------------- At first only units in large sizes, half meter or more screen. They cost many hundreds to thousands of dollars, partly because they are only newly introduced into the market. There are many benefits of the digital unit. Some models could be hung on a wall, freeing floor space and allowing a more comfortable angle for viewing. They suffer much less from reflections of room or day light on their screens. They can be viewed at larger off-center angles. Their picture is more colorful and sharper than that of an analog unit. There are malefits. Just about all the units are plain picture frames, like some kind of X-ray machine, upsetting the decor of the room. None so far, except really high-end models, come with furniture like an analog console. There is no top surface to place a set-top box, like a DVD player, or toys and pictures. An other consideration is that the signal you now get from a cable service may not play properly thru a digital TV receiver. Ask your cable service for advice and the possibility of exchanging your cable unit for one that works correctly with your new TV. Because of the scarcity of digital broadcast in early 2009, most readers held off getting a new television. The overall thinking was that near yearend 2008, as a holiday treat, they'll get the new unit. There was at first no rush to get the converter box, with or without the coupon.
WARNING!! ------- If you receive television shows via cable service, you don't need a digital TV receiver or a converter unit. Your analog unit plays all the shows sent to it by the cable company. The company doctors up the signal, analog so far and digital after the switchover, to send into your analog television. However!, starting in late October 2008, some cable services are sending DIGITAL signals over its lines to customers. They presume that customers now got digital television units that prefer a digital input. Analog sets render these signals as nonsense audio/video noise. In addition, some are sending out only the digital simulcast of analog shows, on the same presumption. By FCC regs, cable services must provide all of the broadcast channels in your market, whether digital or analog, at no extra charge beyond the minimum cable plan. In theory you can subscribe to a plan that sends to you only the thru-the-air channels, altho I can't think of any such plan actually offered. All plans include at least some extra only-cable shows. If you lose an analog broadcast channel because your cable service stopped sending the analog signal and now offers only the digital simulcast, it is out of reg and should be reported to your local district attorney. The service can not revoke the broadcast channels or turn them into illegible form. It may, and likely will, offer its extra channels, those part of higher-level plans, in digital-only form. I am starting to hear that certain premium channels suddenly are changed to digital signal without adequate warning to the customers. They all at once find that they no longer can receive these shows on their analog TV receiver. The service can, but as far as I can determine, is not required to, offer a new cable box with a conversion feature. A caring service will swop your current cable box for a new one that processes both analog and digital incoming shows. The essential point to know is that the cable service must continue to send you all of the channels that are sent over the air and would otherwise be received thru an antenna. it must do so with no hassle, like making you buy a digital receiver or converter box. Report irregular service practices to your district attorney.
Global economy ------------ By late summer of 2008 the world's economic situation undergoed a massive contraction or, as some say, collapse. With the shrinkage of available money to spend on discretionary purchases, readers put off the plan to get a new digital television. This was in spite of a gradually decline in prices and issuance of units in smaller sizes for tables or stands. There arose a refreshed demand for the coupons from the FAA. Stores responded by including the boxes in their ads, which they generally didn't do here to fore. They figured on selling new digital televisions. The coupon offer is still in force as at late October 2008 and stores now have racks of converter boxes to choose from. This article assumes you postponed the purchase of a digital television and are fixing to get the converter box.
Getting the coupon ----------------- If you didn't yet do so, go NOW to 'www.dtv2009.gov' and fill out the form to get a free $40-discount coupon. You may ask for one or two. GET TWO!! You may think you need only one box because you have only one analog television. Are you SURE that's all you got? Did you forget the one hidden in your kitchen, now draped over with towels? The coupons are sent ONLY to residential addresses and to ONLY one family within that address. The form does a sanity check and gives you an approve/reject notice. For example it may reject a request to send the coupons to your business. It may reject a request if an other family at your address already applied for the coupons. This caused anger for readers in multiple family houses and even large apartment houses. While I can not honestly believe that if ONE family in, say, Stuyvesant Town gets the coupon, all others, 15,000 of them, are locked out for having the same mailing address. Yet I do hear of such nonsense. There is an appeal option but I know of no one that successfully won an appeal. Best to do is spoof the form with some variation of your address. Try missing out an apostrophe in, say, 'St Ann's St' or deliberately misspelling the town 'Mineapolis'. Add a floor as if it was an apartment, 'Apt 3'. Business address caused additional grief. Many business sections of towns are under residential development, like Herald Square on Manhattan or Red Hook in Brooklyn. The commercial or industrial zoning, which is how I think the check is made, could be out of date in the coupon database. Or you could actually live in a building that is still classified as a business, like in Chelsea on Manhattan.
Security? ------- The form includes a silly security test. It displays in distorted form a word or two. You have to key in these words to 'make sure' of something or other. If you goof, you have to try again. Doing 'back' after getting the error message presents a new set of words to key in. When you finally get things right, you get an approval report with a reference number. PRINT HIS PAGE!! You need this number if you have to check on the status of your coupon request. The coupons are mailed out in bunches on certain days. Your coupon should go out in the very or second next batch. It takes the normal post office time to receive the coupons after the mailing date. I don't know from where the coupons are mailed so it is uncertain when to worry about not getting them. If two weeks go by without getting the coupons, go back to the website with your reference number and query it. If need be, email the FAA about possible loss in the mail.
The coupon -------- The coupon is valid for three months after MAILING, not after receipt. They then die and you can not get replacements. You can be slugging the information you punch into a new request form. MOST converter boxes are eligible for the coupon but NOT ALL. Eligibility is marked on the box by a sticker or imprint. Give the coupon to the paypoint when buying the box. You get $40 deducted from the sales price. Most boxes are in the $40 to $70 range, so you could get a box for free or for less than half price. Some stores allow the coupon to be exercised for phone or online orders. The order form requests a serial number from the coupon. Once this number is returned to the FCC, that coupon is dead and can not be used for an other purchase. Its number is rejected and the store will bill you for the full price, without the discount, of the box. The store redeems the coupon at the FCC I don't know how a return is handled, since the coupon by then was sent off for redemption. One reader told me you get back just the excess over $40. It appears that the coupon is transferible. I know of readers who purchased a converter box on behalf of a friend or relative with that person's coupon.
Converter box ----------- The unit is small, the size of a desk calculator, and weighs next to nothing. It better have rubber feet so it doesn't skitter on top of your television. You may place the box anywhere near the television limited by length of cable and sightline to its controller sensor. There are only a few sockets on the back for the lead from the antenna and the cable to the TV. There may be audio/video sockets like those on some VCRs. Assorted connectors and cables are included, as well as a control wand. The wand is tiny. You can easily misplace it or lose it under papers on your table. Only a few have lugs for a strap. If yours got one, loop a meter of thick twine, or a meck strap, thru it to make it easier to retrieve the controller when buried. Lacking a lug, you can attach a large paper clip to one end with super glue or epoxy. Batteries for it may or may not be included. Be sure to have a couple AAA batteries on hand just in case. READ THE INSTRUCTIONS! While boxes all have similar operations, the arrangement of buttons on the wand and wording of the onscreen menus differ widely among models. There can also be slight differences in the sequence of operations to do a certain function. Except for powering the unit on or off, there are no controls on the box itself to worry about. Everything is accomplished thru the wand.
Connecting the box ---------------- Connecting the box to your television takes five minutes, assuming you have all the parts and tools to hand. Have WITH you these items. They are specially applicable if you help others set up their boxes.
Flashlight Female coax-to-twin lead connector Male coax-to-antenna screws connector Cross point screw driver Flat point screw driver Felt-tip pen Scissors Masking tape
The masking tape is used to wrap connections that can work loose or just for peace of mind. The flashlight illuminates the dark area in back of the TV and highlights molded labels on it. The other items will be a godsend just when you think you don't need them. You may not need the two connectors but if you do and you don't have them, you're in for a second trip to complete the install. Unused connectors can be saved for future use. Clear off from the top of the TV all pictures, toys, papers so you don't knock them off while working around the unit. You need room to place the converter box if it has to be on top of the unit. This may call for some rearranging of the topside decorations. Look carefully at the back of your television. Does it have a coaxial (also called RF) cable connecting it to the antenna? When you remove this cable it should have a thin pin in the center of the round plug. It may have a hexagonal turning nut at the root of the plug. This is optional. The cable may simply press-fit into the TV socket. If the antenna is attached by two lugs at the end of a flat ribbon cable, AND there is NO coaxial socket (older units are so built) you need a connector. Get this from an home electronic store. You need the model that connects a coaxial cable to twin-lead screws. It has lugs at one end and a female coax cable socket at the other and is about the size of a candy bar. An alternative is to forgo the existing antenna, even if it an outside one, and get a small rabbit-ear antenna with the coaxial connector. The converter box will work just as well being that the digital signal is far more resistant to static and distortion than an analog one. You may also need a connector to attach the lead from the antenna to the converter box. This is a tiny cube, the size of a candy piece, with contact screws at one end and a male plug at the other. The lead from the antenna is screwed onto the contacts, there being no polarity, and the connector plugs into the converter box. If the connector has two pairs of screw for 'VHF' and 'UHF' use the UHF screws because that frequency band is the digital broadcast band. Trick! Jumper the two sets of screw together with telephone wire, stripped bag tie, or small paper clip. Join a screw from one side to the other on the same side. Now your antenna will feed BOTH bands into the box! This gives you a far cleaner picture when you want to watch stations that haven't switched over yet. Analog signal is sent out on the VHf band. The connections are like this, but do examine the instructions for your specific unit.
+------@E mains socket in wall | \ | / 'power' \|/ antenna | | ######### ######## | # # # # +-------------'from antenna'-# box #-'to TV' ------# TV # # # # # ######### #######@
The connectors, as needed, is placed at the antenna screws on the television or at the 'from antenna' socket of the box. In the ideal case, you just shift cables that you already have attached to the antenna and got with the box.
Smoke test -------- The box comes with a power brick. Attach it and plug the other end into a live power point. One thing to note is that most boxes are always powered, even tho you 'turned off' the unit with the wand. they are always on standby, which does eat some electric, even if only a trickle current. Hence, soonest you plug in the power brick, a pilot lamp should light up. To shut the unit down completely, there's an on/off button on the box. This is for periods of long absence from the television, like when you go to sleep or on travel. First, tune the television, with ITS wand, to channel 3 or 4, according as the instructions tell you. Where there is a choice, pick the channel NOT taken by a station in your locality. that is, normally you get only static and hash when you tune to it. Next, with the BOX wand, press 'menu' or similar and procede thru the initialization process. This walks you thru some settings (like the receiving channel of 3 or 4) and then a all-frequency scan for available digital channels. a progress meter clocks up the channels found and enrolls them into the box onboard memory. Next, try with the BOX wand tuning to a couple channels. Now here's the rub. The box generally senses ONLY the digital channels and NOT any of the analog ones. You may get channel 7 BECAUSE it happens to be simulcasting its show in both analog and digital and you are picking up the digital side. You may miss channel 12 BECAUSE it as at now is not sending out a digital signal. Hence, at first you may feel you lost some channels!
Aspect ratio ---------- Aspect ratio is the proportional shape of the displayed image on your television. The analog protocol has a 3/4 (or 4/3) proportion, meaning that the picture is 4 units wide, left-right, and 3 tall, up- down. Many converter boxes can figure out how to fit the digital image into this shape of screen. Others ask for the aspect ratio during the initialization procedure. Choose '3/4' or '4/3'. One of the glaring goofs in the new digital system is that there is no single standard shape or resolution for the image. The result is that on your analog television screen the picture may fit nicely across but have black bands on top and bottom. Ot it may fit nicely up but have the black bands on the sides. The former is called 'mail slot' display because it's like viewing the scene thru a typical mail slot in a door. The latter is 'double door' for the scene viewed between partly opened doors. These are not official names. You may see other metaphors. What shows on your screen is controlled by the broadcaster and it may change from show to show. Some converter boxes and most digital TVs allow you to size the picture to fill the physical screen. This crops the picture to contain only the central portion. When you do this, there is a scroll function to slide over to the hidden part. Most readers seem to just leave the picture as is, mail slot or double doors.
Getting all channels ------------------ This is one of the more confusing facets of working a converter box. Most, but NOT ALL, have 'analog pass-thru'. This means -- and this point is cocked up in some explanations -- that in addition to the digital signal feeding into your TV, the box flows thru the analog signal, too. This is picked up by your antenna anyway, so it's just as well to let ti thru to the TV. However, the box doesn't tune to the analog channels. To get at these channels, you tune to them with the TELEVISION'S wand. Move off of channel 3 (or 4) and stand on, say, channel 12. There's your old channel 12 on screen. That's why in the initialization you should pick a channel for the box as one NOT now occupied by a live channel. Else you can not play that channel with the box connected to the TV. By the way, in the US channel 3 and 4 are never BOTH occupied in a given television market area. One or the other is always vacant.
Enrolling channels ---------------- When you first fired up the box there on the air certain digital channels. Because as at October 2008 many broadcasters have limited hours of digital service, it can happen that a channel you can receive missed the initial scanning. It was off the air at that time. The onscreen menu has an option to add new channels. This keeps all the currently enrolled channels and adds only newly found ones. If you call up this function from time to time, at assorted hours of the day and days of the week, you'll eventually enroll all of the digital channels playing in your locality. You may learn of a channel by an advertisement and then wait until it's playing. Then do the 'add channel' function to capture it into memory. Do NOT do an 'all-channel scan' again! This will erase the onboard memory and load it with just the channels NOW on the air. A channel you used to receive and happens to be off the air will be lost.
Universal controller ------------------ If you got a universal controller wand, one that governs many appliances from it, you may add the converter box to it. The instructions will give the coding to include the box on your controller. Most boxes allow this and make it clear that you can in their instructions. Lacking any word in the instructions about putting the converter box on a universal controller likely means it can not be included. You must use only the specific wand that came with the box.
Shutting down ----------- When television viewing is finished, first turn off the box by its and. The TV screen should go blank with hash and static. The turn off the TV with its wand. To resume viewing, first turn on the TV, to get the blank screen and then turn on the box to start viewing channels. I suggest this procedure to give you visual and audio confirmation that you in fact operated both the television and converter box. If you shut off just the TV you could forget about the box and it remains awake all night long while you're asleep. This is not in itself harmful but there is the needless waste of electric and a risk of overheating the box. The box typicly remains powered at a low level with its pilot lamp lighted all the time. To depower the box, press the 'on/off' button on the box. In extreme cases, remove the power brick from the power point.
Subchannels --------- One amazing feature of digital signal protocol is that each station's new bandwidth, of six megahertz, can be divided into p to three subchannels. each is then two megahertz wide, enough for lower- level resolution shows, like cartoons or talk shows. The channel is sliced up as and when the station wants. The division can vary hour by hour according as the programming sent out by the station. this is an other reason to apply the 'add channel' function from time to time. The channels are numbered as decimal or dashes, '4.2', 6-3'. The use of a '.' or '-' is entirely cosmetic and is only the symbol on the wand. To acquire channel 6.3 you press '6', '.', '3' on the wand. Pressing '6','3' without the separator symbol gets you channel 63. Holding a channel number down repeats it '66666'. The wands I examined all seem to have very light touch and it is easy to hold down a key too long. Try tapping or pecking at the keys. each subchannel carries its own show, with no regard for the other subchannels of that broadcaster. This, in theory, allows simultaneous send out of different programming to cater to various markets. In actuality, you get up to three times as many channels all with the same fetid putrid programming as ever.
HD or DT channels --------------- A broadcaster may advertise a show on its analog channel '6' and its digital channel '6 HD' or '6 DT'. However, not all digital channels are broadcast over the air. Some, like channel 13 HD in New York City, are offered only thru a cable service. Hence, until analog 13 is switched to digital on or before 17 february 2009 you must physicly tune the television to channel 13 to play it. You can not with the thru-the-air setup get channel 13 HD.
Reception ------- Reception varies by channel and even by subchannel, according as the location of the transmitter. Because the digital system is new, the broadcaster may have new transmission facilities remote from the those for the analog channels. Reception may be more erratic at first than previously experienced. Digital signals are more stable against interference and static. what happens when the signal is weak is that the image pixelates into large squares and sound may shut off. In marginal signal strength yu get a start-stop effect like a skipping movie film. This defect is more tolerable than the hisses and growls and buzzes of analog sound interference and the snow, hash, scrambling of the picture. There is also far less overwriting of lines and bars from radio emission nearby. The converter wand has s signal strength button to show what's what with the incoming show. It doesn't actually fix up the display but you do learn it's the state of the waves reaching the antenna.
Television functions ------------------ The loudness of the sound can be controlled by BOTH the television and the box wands. Play the one against the other to get the proper level of sound. Usually you first set the television volume once with its wand using an analog station. Then fine adjust with the box wand for the digital channels. While playing digital channels the brightness and contrast of the picture are worked thru the television. Remember, the TV 'sees' only an analog signal as if it came directly thru the antenna. So it can work with it in its own usual manner. The mute and earphone work thru the television, as do any accessory attached directly to the unit thru separate sockets. You can take photographs of the TV screen exactly as you do for analog displays. The refresh rate is the same, so keep the shutter speed slow, 1/15 or 1/8 second, to avoid dark banding across the photograph.
Information --------- Digital broadcasts include a info panel about each show and usually a caption at the bottom of the screen. The former is a momentary display of the channel number, show name, and a short description. It's like the information given in a TV program listing and is provided by the broadcaster as he wants. The caption is a toggle on or off to display text dialog at the bottom of the picture. This is meant for hearing-impaired viewers. It is very useful for viewing in a noisy room or when the sound hs to be turned down, like for a phone call.
Filtered channels --------------- Digital shows have a rating like for movies to allow filtering them out from viewing by children. The rating is assigned by the show producer or the station. The instructions describe the rating scheme and how to code the allowable level into the converter box. Shows with that and tighter rating will not play. There is an adult override by keying in a code number of your choosing, which you keep secret from children.
Accessories --------- Analog accessories can be attached to the converter box thru the audio/video sockets without upsetting the connections to the TV. What ever channel is displayed on the TV is also sent out the A/V sockets to your accessory. Altho you could insert the accessory BETWEEN the box and the TV, it's better to leave the box-TV setup alone.
The old television ----------------- If you get a digital television unit, you may discard the old analog unit. Please mind well that many towns have special procedures for disposing electronic items. Its sanitation crew may ignore your unit if left at the curb with other rubbish. Read and understand your town's procedure for electronic disposal. If you disregard them, you could earn a nasty summons and fine. With the anticipated rush of TV discards in this yearend holiday season, some towns are issuing new rules. Pay attention to them! One common rule is that the TV must be taken to a collection depot and not discarded under existing rules. Depending on the bulk and weight of the unit, your mobility, location of the depot, this can be a miserable chore. Speak with your sanitation department for waivers or work-arounds. It may, at its discretion, send a truck to pick it up or tell you to leave it on the curb on a certain day. With the termination of analog broadcasts, there is essentially no longer a trickle-down market for old televisions. You can not, for instance, donate it to a youth center for watching shows. On the other hand, the center's video game consoles will still play on them.
Conclusion -------- While having a real digital television is the optimum way to enjoy digital broadcast, the money crunch of late 2008 may put off such an expense. The converter box, once neglected, are now in high demand as a work-around until times improve to get a new TV. They are quite simple to set up and operate, easier than most VCRs. The electric they consume from being powered all the time (unless deliberately shut down) is minimal, of the order of a small night light. The controller wands may be tinny and probably will not endure rough handling. Its small size lets it get lost easily. Otherwise, it works pretty much like the controller for the television. Getting the coupon thru the FCC website is quick and easy, providing the request isn't turned down. Once the request is accepted, the coupons should be in your hands within a few weeks. The price of the box, with the $40 coupon, is quite modest. It could end up being a midterm substitute for a new TV unit, into mid or late 2009.