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Issue #76: January 4, 2009

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Welcome, fellow Geeks, to 2009!  For this first column of the year, I’d like to break from answering questions to talk about the biggest single technology story that has come along in recent memory: the switch to digital television, or DTV.  For those of you who may have been living under some sort of technology news filtering rock for the past few years, you need to know that we’re rapidly approaching a watershed moment in the evolution of broadcast television.  After being talked about for many years, digital TV will go online in the United States on February 18th 2009, and the old analog signals that have been in use since the late 1940’s, will cease.  This is the most significant change to a broadcast standard since TV went from black and white to color.  Most times, when changes like this are made, they are backward-compatible with existing equipment.  For example, old black and white TVs still worked after the switch to color.  However, the change to DTV is NOT backward-compatible and analog tuner TVs that are used to pick up over-the-air television will cease to function on February 18th unless you take steps to prepare. 

Before this gets to sound like a big scare tactic, let me just say that the odds are that most people reading this will not be affected by the change, and probably won’t even notice when it takes place.  That’s because if you receive your TV via cable or satellite, as most people do, your provider is already taking steps to ensure your service continues uninterrupted.  The only people this will affect are those who receive TV signals over the air.  If you have a TV aerial on your house, or use a set of rabbit ears on top of your TV, that includes you.  However, if you’re like me, you probably have other TVs that you don’t use day-to-day that will also be affected, such as a portable TV that you take to the beach or the park, or a battery-powered TV in your hurricane kit.

So, you may be wondering, does that make these older TVs just so much worthless electronic junk after Feb 18?  No, there are converter boxes available that sit between the antenna and the TV that will tune the digital broadcast, and convert it into a format that an old TV can view, exactly the same way a cable box tunes channels your TV can’t.  These boxes are widely available online and in local electronics retailers for around $40.  However, if you act fast, you can get one, and you won’t even have to pay for it.  Knowing how potentially disruptive the conversion is going to be, the federal government has made available a number of coupons, good for $40 toward the purchase of a DTV converter box.  There are a limited number of these coupons left, so you’ll want to try and get yours right away, before they run out.  Visit www.DTV2009.gov, or call 888-388-2009.  With a little planning, you’ll be ready for the big switch!

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