John Pazmino
 NYSkies Astronomy Inc
 2008 November 16 
    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 '' 
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. 
    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 
    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 '' 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. 
    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 
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. 
    Female coax-to-twin lead connector
    Male coax-to-antenna screws connector
    Cross point screw driver 
    Flat point screw driver
    Felt-tip pen
    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 
    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 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 
    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.
    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. 
    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.