The countdown to the switch to digital television is on, and if you're not ready, you could be left in the dark.
In exactly one month, on Tuesday, Feb. 17, all full-power broadcast television stations across the country will stop broadcasting on analog airwaves and begin broadcasting only in digital. The transition is one that's been in the making for more than a decade, when Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. According to the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency which regulates television broadcasts, the legislation began the transition process by distributing an additional broadcast channels to television stations to simultaneously broadcast on both analog and digital frequencies. This year's Feb. 17 deadline was assigned to ensure the transition would be complete by that time.
The change was called for by Congress in order to free up analog frequencies for use by public safety officials such as police, fire and emergency rescue personnel. The FCC claims the benefit to television viewers will be "improved picture and sound quality and additional channels."
In order for televisions to receive the digital channels, there are a few options. Those who utilize antennas to on a television set with an analog tuner must either subscribe to cable, satellite or other pay television service; upgrade to a television with a digital tuner or purchase a digital-to-analog converter box, which converts digital signals for viewing on an analog television.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has been offering coupons to cover the cost of converter boxes since January 2008. Since that time, 25 million people have requested coupons through the program, with 18.8 million already having been redeemed. Overall, the NTIA is able to distribute coupons for 33.5 million converter boxes, although time is now running out.
Now, the likelihood of applying for, receiving and redeeming a coupon before Feb. 17 is "zip," said Forbes. As of Jan. 12, the waiting list to receive a converter box coupon contains approximately 1.7 million names.
"It changes day to day," said Forbes. "That's why we've been promoting for the last three months, that folks should apply by and try for their coupons by Dec. 31. "The whole process of applying for coupons, getting the coupons through the mail, finding a weekend to get your converter box then connecting it is about six weeks."
Those who have been procrastinating about making the switch or who claim to have been in the dark on the transition will likely need to pony up their own dough for the boxes, said Forbes, though they wouldn't necessarily have had to do so.
"They've not been listening to the messages that have been put out on the broadcasters' stations, that have been put out for about a year, a year and a half now," said Forbes. "If people wait until the last minute, they might not get a coupon and get their converter box from the store in time for the end of this 12-year-long transition."
"That's the result of putting it off, quite frankly," he added.
Requests for coupons through the NTIA are being accepted until March 31 and will be available until that date or as supplies last, said Forbes. Coupons expire 90 days from when they are mailed and are not to be used to reimburse previous purchases of converter boxes.
Though there has been discussion of extending the deadline of applying for coupons, unless there is additional funding allocated for the program, there is likely little good it would do, said Forbes.
"The problem is right now, we've hit the fund obligation limit set by Congress ... we can't mail out more coupons than for which we have funds obligated," said Forbes. "We're still redeeming coupons, we're still accepting requests, we're still mailing coupons. It's just because of that cap placed on us by Congress, we cannot mail out more."
Mary Diamond, a spokesperson for the FCC, said the change is coming regardless if people are ready or not.
"If you see rabbit ears on your television, you need to take action," said Diamond, referring to over-the-air antennas.
And, while some public promotion campaigns regarding the switch to digital television have been misleading, stating televisions "will stop working" on Feb. 17, Diamond said televisions will indeed continue to function, though will no longer be able to receive analog signals.
Televisions will still be able to be used for playing DVDs, video cassettes and game consoles.
For more information, visit www.dtv.gov.