In a year -- on Feb. 17, 2009 -- television will change forever when all TV stations must begin broadcasting with a digital signal instead of an analog signal.
What that means for you as a consumer depends on what the source of your television programing is now. To understandwhat the switch will mean for you, read on.
WHAT IS HAPPENING AND WHY?
In February 2009, all full-power television stations will have to broadcast with a digital, not analog signal.
Digital signals create a better picture and are more efficient than analog signals, which vary continuously, creating fluctuations in color and brightness.
The switch, which was passed into law by Congress, will free up parts of the airwaves for uses like public safety and new wireless services.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR LOCAL CABLE CUSTOMERS?
First, it does not mean you'll have to buy new television sets.
If you are a cable customer of Hargray, chances are there will be no changes to your service and you won't need to do anything.
If you don't have a cable box on your television set, Hargray will be doing
the switch for you and converting the signals, said Mark Reinhardt, director of video services. It won't cost you anything for that to happen.
If you do have a cable box, you'll continue using the box, which costs $3.99 for each box per month. Hargray says that price won't change.
Digital customers who don't have boxes on every TV can still get analog signals on those other TVs or can add boxes to take advantage of digital services, like high-definition programming and video on demand, Reinhardt said.
A small number of long-time customers have analog cable boxes. Those will be upgraded to digital at no additional cost.
Finally, if you use a television set that needs an antenna, you'll need to buy a converter box. (See below under 'What if you use an antenna?')
Time Warner customers will, similarly, see little change from the switch. The company offers both analog and digital service. Neither prices nor service will change when digital hits the airwaves, said Dan Santelle, vice president of sales and marketing.
A majority of Time Warner's customers are digital, Santelle said.
Time Warner customers can also have a mixture of digital and analog service in their homes, and set-top boxes rent for $9.95 per month, if customers wish to add more, he said.
Time Warner will continue to allow new customers to sign up for analog service, called basic service by Time Warner, for the foreseeable future.
Satellite services DirecTV and Dish Network are already all digital.
WHAT IF YOU USE
If you currently use an antenna to pick up broadcast television, it is likely that when the switch happens next February your screen will go blank.
To make sure that doesn't happen, you'll need to add a digital-to-analog converter box. With the addition of such a box, consumers won't need to change their antenna or television to watch broadcast television.
The boxes will cost between $40 and $70. The federal government has created a coupon program to help offset that cost. Every U.S. household can receive up to two coupons, each worth $40, to buy the boxes.
For more information, visit www.ntia.doc.gov/dtvcoupon or call 888-388-2009.
IS YOUR TV DIGITAL?
There are a couple ways to tell.
By law, as of March 1, 2007, all televisions sold in the U.S. had to be digital. Retailers were allowed to sell existing inventory, but those were marked with a prominent consumer alert.
If your TV is older, look for labels or markings that contain words like"integrated digital tuner" or "digital receiver" or the initials "DTV," "ATSC" or "HDTV."
And, if you are one of the rare few who has a digital television, but uses an antenna, a digital-to-analog converter box isn't needed.