Making the Digital Switch: Congress Delays, You Shouldn't

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Hopefully, you’ve heard by now that television broadcasts will soon be shifting from analog to digital; in fact, many channels may make this switch in a matter of weeks. While the origins of this switch go all the way back to 1996, when Congress first authorized the allotment of a digital channel to every broadcast network, they did not require stations to broadcast in this format until this year.

Without going through the entire history of broadcasting, here are the basics:

  • Television stations have broadcast in analog for the last 50 years.
  • Analog signals vary in power and clarity, so traditional television sets tend to get inconsistent pictures.
  • Analog signals also take up a lot more of the broadcast spectrum (like a rainbow, only with “Seinfeld” and The “Hills” instead of “ROYGBIV”), which only has so much space.

In short, digital broadcasting improves sound and picture quality, and it also frees up space for other broadcast channels, like emergency services.

The deadline for the switch was originally February 17, but it has been postponed until June 12 due to concerns that millions of people were still not prepared. If you are not a tech wiz, or own an old television, then you just may be one of those millions. In an effort to help make sense of the reasons for, and vocabulary of, here are the essentials of what you need to know and do in the coming months:

Don't let your TV haunt your trash pile. Recycling, donation and sites like eBay or Craigslist are much better ways to dispose of your television dinosaur. - Asyousow.org

Don't let your television haunt your trash pile. Recycling, donation, and sites like eBay or Craigslist, are much better ways to dispose of your TV dinosaur. Photo: Asyousow.org

Still Fuzzy on Analog and Digital?

First and foremost, it is important to note that this switch does not pertain to cable subscribers. The law only affects stations that broadcast on public airwaves from an antenna. While some cable providers are making the switch to digital, they are not legally required to do so and will likely notify you well in advance of such changes. Those households who rely on “rabbit ears” or any kind of analog antenna are the ones who need to be prepared for this transition.

So how do you know if your television is analog? If your TV is more than 10 years old, it is almost certainly analog. More recent televisions may or may not be digital, so it’s probably time to check your owner’s manual or look up your model number to confirm.

A Switch in Time

First, the good news: you have time before your broadcast stations disappear from your analog set.

Now, the bad news: it isn’t clear just how much time you have. The new law only says that companies do not have to switch until June 12, but it does not say anything about switching at an earlier date. Once February 17 rolls around, stations may begin converting on their own schedule, so unless you really enjoy watching static, it is important to make plans ahead of time.

Back to some more good news: you do not need to get rid of your analog television. I repeat: you do not need to dump your television.

Converting the Masses

There’s no need to trash a perfectly good television just because it’s analog. You simply need a converter box, which will convert digital signals to analog so they can be viewed on your television. Converter boxes can be purchased at most electronics stores, and they run anywhere from $40 to $70. Even if this price feels steep, it’s less expensive than a brand-new set altogether.

The U.S. government was issuing qualifying households $40 coupons toward the purchase of these boxes, but as of January 4, “the Coupon Program reached its authorized funding ceiling.” But don’t be dismayed, since you can still apply for a coupon and be put on a waiting list to receive funds from unredeemed coupons (such as coupons that are expired, lost, etc.) on a first-come-first-served basis.

If your old set is on its last legs, though, and you are in the market for a new television, it’s important that you dispose of your set properly. Televisions, especially the older cathode ray tube sets (CRTs), contain toxic chemicals like lead and mercury. The last thing the government wanted when they organized the digital transition was to add millions of pounds of toxic waste to the air, land and water, so be sure to use Earth911.com’s recycling database for local resources to help you dispose of your set. Another alternative: if your television is in good shape, and you just can’t resist the allure of a flat screen, you can donate it to a local thrift store.

Since the U.S. EPA estimates that less than 20 percent of televisions are properly recycled, this is a great opportunity to improve such a troubling statistic.

The delay in the digital switch has bought us all a little time, and we should use it wisely. Whether you plan to use coupons to purchase converters or buy new digital sets, it is also important to make plans for your old sets once they have outlived their usefulness. Together we can ensure a clean, green transition to digital television.

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