Holes in the DTV Transition

Holes in the DTV Transition

A slew of converter boxes and the government's confusing coupon program are just some of the problems plaguing the digital transition.


Aug. 29, 2008 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

For Sondie Reiff and Don Glickman and many more who love pop music, and pop culture, next February will mark the 50th anniversary of “The day the music died”….when a tragic airplane crash killed a number of top pop singers. For Sondie and Don, next February 17th, may be the day that TV dies.

On that day the recently retired, but very active couple, may not have access to their precious PBS specials, sports events, soap operas and Jeopardy. Tough to imagine considering they have a nice new 40-inch HDTV in their mobile home and their 15-year old, but still clear as ever, 27-inch Panasonic TV in their condo that they keep to be near their grandchildren in New England. These folks don’t want cable or satellite TV (because they travel so much), but they still want their basic TV in the condo as well as their mobile home.

That’s the day, the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 finally comes into effect mandating that most TV broadcasts must be in a digital format. In the meantime, all U.S. households are eligible to request up to two coupons, worth $40 each, to be used toward the purchase of up to two, digital-to-analog converter boxes which will enable all TVs to receive the digital signals….supposedly a simple solution for the millions of households without cable or satellite.

“There are more than 35 million people who still use terrestrial (over the air signals) to receive TV signals. They’re the ones who will be affected by the transition,” says a senior research editor at Consumer’s Union, the parent company of Consumer Reports. “But I’m not sure the government anticipated all the issues involved in such a massive undertaking.”

In addition, many other people who use their non-cable, non-satellite TVs in other rooms in the house or in their mobile or second homes will surely want to participate as soon as they hear and see the post Labor Day media blitz. Here are some of the latest issues facing the largest technology initiative ever undertaken by the federal government for consumers in decades.

  • Confusion, supply, demand and technological issues will get worse after Labor Day, when new federal and retail advertising campaigns are sure to drive more and more consumers into stores and online looking for set top boxes…or for answers to what and how to buy these boxes.
  • In the last three months alone, several box makers have been taken off the “passed Federal guidelines” list from the NTIA. (View list)
  • Several unscrupulous on-line retailers have taken in the coupons but not delivered the boxes to customers.
  • It is still not clear whether when you return a damaged or non-working box or want to exchange it for a more feature laden box, whether you can get your original coupon back.
  • Even as of August 25th, the better national and regional retailers are carrying older versions of set top boxes right next to newer versions and in many cases the salesperson does not know the difference between products.
  • Many customers believe that when they bring their coupons into the retailer or inline store, they can get a box free with coupons not realizing that they will have to shell out from $10 to $20 more to get their box.
  • Government officials are still not sure what to do for customers whose 60-day coupon expires.

According to several industry experts, some transactions go smoothly; many more are having problems: boxes that aren’t delivered as promised and/or boxes that are delivered but don’t work. “This transition has not been as smooth as trade associations and government officials claim,” says Len Wanger, senior technology analyst for William Harris & Co., the Chicago based investment firm. (Read - “CEA Says DTV Transition Looks Healthy”)

“People are still confused of which box to buy and whether or not they’ll have the right equipment for next February. And some network and local over-the-air broadcasters are jumping the gun and cutting off analog broadcasts early, so folks in those areas without cable boxes or satellite have already lost some of their TV signals,” adds Wanger.

Several local Radio Shack managers admitted that they either run out of boxes or when they do have some in stock, there’s confusion of which box to pick. “We are at the mercy of the manufacturers, so sometimes we’ll have a few older and newer boxes sitting right next to each other and it is hard to tell the consumer what to pick,” says a manager who works in several New England Radio Shacks. “Plus they ask why they have to shell out more than the coupons calls for so the process is not that simple.”

Not simple and quite confusing for people, retailers, and manufacturers that Electronic House interviewed.

Everyone is talking about how all TV will be digital thus enabling the broadcasters to use the extra bandwidth to provide even more stations to the already overloaded channel listing. In return the broadcasters relinquished other analog channels enabling the government to auction those stations or tiers off for a profit.

In actuality it’s really only “full-power” broadcast TV stations, which use the public airwaves to provide free over-the-air programming. Cable TV networks, like CNN, MSNBC, Lifetime, etc. are not required to switch to digital in February; they can continue to deliver channels to their customers in analog. However, as cable providers convert to digital transmissions over their systems, you may need to subscribe to their digital tier to continue to receive this non-broadcast programming.

So what does that mean to you? And if the change affects you, what do you do about it? Well, if your TV sets currently receive programming through cable or satellite, don’t worry, you’re OK. You’ll continue watching TV as before, except the picture might (hopefully) be even better than you’re used to. Some cable companies have jumped the gun and dropped their analog stations or moved them to a digital tier requiring their customers to pay more for what they have for basic cable.

You only have to “do something” if you have one or more televisions that receive free over-the-air television programming with a roof-top antenna, multi-dwelling master antennas or “rabbit ears” on the TV. Then you have to figure out what type of TV you have. 

According to sources at the major retailers, the biggest question asked after the customer asks for directions is why he/she has to pay for the box.

Brian Forbes, a spokesman for the NTIA says that his division of the government was entrusted with managing the huge transition. Other industry officials blame Congress for shortchanging the public. Congress allotted a certain amount of money for the transition, which stopped at $40 a box. The box makers and retailers can’t make money at the price, consequently the markup of sometimes as much $20. In any case millions of people have gotten their coupons and have already traded them in for a converter box. A good portion of those, who don’t plan to add cable or satellite, have purchased the renewed, revamped and so far very reliable 2008 version of rabbit ears: An under $40 set top antenna to receive those converted and not converted channels.

But the huge push and decent acceptance of the digital convergence has taxed the manufacturing and retail system beyond what they were expecting.

I recently visited a dozen Best Buy and Circuit City stores along with some wholesale clubs. Not surprisingly, the customers asking for a box (slightly discounted at the wholesale clubs ($49-$54), but full price at the CE stores) have no one to answer their questions and are also confronted with what seems to be simple directions right on the box. But despite some common names like Zenith, and GE and Magnavox, there’s still a lot of confusion for many consumers. There are also several instances of online retailer problems and non conforming, though licensed converter boxes.

Sources close to the NTIA and FCC, the governing bodies of the transition, admit that they have to cancel the licenses of several converter box makers and investigated several online retailers, because:

  • The boxes were found faulty (some run too hot) and not delivering the analog to digital signals that is required.
  • The (mostly) on–line retailer failed to deliver the boxes to consumers who sent in their coupons.

“If you have a problem with a retailer or a box itself (after getting technical support) please report these issues to us,” says Forbes.

The best advice from most industry analysts is that if you are going to participate in the converter box program, do it sooner rather than later. “The coupon program is barely meeting its goals now but the longer you wait the longer it will take to get the coupons and the boxes themselves,” says Wanger.

Related articles:
Everything You Need to Know about the Digital Transition
The Converter Box Setup
DTV Transition: FAQs



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