With the huge growth in wireless electronic communications, the airspace occupied by radio waves is getting increasingly tight. Picture a two-lane country road, crammed with traffic. Would you rather share it with motorcycles or semi-trucks? “Old-style” television broadcasts are like huge semi-trucks, taking up large chunks of available radio frequency airspace. The newer, digital signals are a whale of a lot smaller. In essence, you can run a whole lot more digital broadcast signals down that highway of broadcast airspace.
On the Receiving End
Seeing the advantages of freeing up airspace (not the least, say some, are the ability of the government to sell freed up frequencies), Congress mandated that by 2009 all full- power TV stations must convert to digital broadcasting. To make the jump, however, new equipment is required at the receiving end of the broadcast. That’s you and me, bud. Our “old style” analog televisions can’t receive the digital signals. Where does that leave us? Unless you get all of your television signals off a satellite system, it probably means you either “junk” your old (if even good) analog televisions (and VCRs) and buy the new digital-tuner equipped ones. Well, hold on. If you get your TV signals from a cable provider that may not be necessary, but the situation is about as clear as your TV picture when the antenna is pointed the wrong way. We’ll come to that in a minute.
Bottom line: If you get any of your TV signals “off the air” that is, with an outside antenna, or rabbit ears, to make your old analog TV work after February 17, you’ll need to add a new piece of equipment—a set-top converter box that will act as an electronic middleman, allowing your analog TV to “view” digital signals. But hang on, even here there’s a bit of a trick.
For our readers who get their TV signals through a “translator” or who watch low-power television stations, a set-top converter box may actually cause you more problems. Why? First, an explanation: A translator is a device that receives signals from distant television stations—signals you probably couldn’t receive on your TV because the station is so far away, or “hidden” behind say, a mountain. The translator picks up those signals, and then transmits them on a different channel, aiming them down to you. RVers in Quartzsite, Arizona, for example, get all their Phoenix TV signals through a translator sitting on a hilltop east of town.
Because the FCC isn’t making translators and low-power TV stations convert to digital, adding on a set-top converter will essentially “kill” those old analog broadcasts—your TV won’t be able to receive them. If all you watch are low-power stations or broadcasts coming from translators, you could just skip getting the converter box. But here again, the Quartzsite example: Two Yuma stations shoot their signals into Quartzsite directly—not through a translator. Next February, without a converter or a new TV, Yuma stations will vanish.
If you’re in the situation where you view both types of stations, life will get complicated. If the converter box has a provision for being “switched off” and allowing old-style analog signals through, great. But if it won’t “pass” analog signals, you’ll have to physically disconnect your antenna cable from the box, hooking it directly to your TV to get those stations. What a mess!
But boondockers beware! We’ve already heard from readers who are concerned about what they’ll do when the big change comes. For example, one reader sent this question in: “I have an AC/DC TV/DVD combo in my rig. I like to dry camp. I use my TV off my 12-volt system. How am I going to hook up this [digital TV] converter in order to see the TV?”
Sadly, the answer looks like this: It doesn’t appear any of the converter box manufacturers are going to build a box powered by 12 volts. The only way you’ll be able to do it is to use a battery inverter to convert 12-volt power to 120-volt AC “shore power” to run the converter box. It doesn’t get any prettier than that.
And now, for the last piece of “good news,” and we say that with irony. What about TV viewers who get their signals from cable providers? At this stage of the game, the situation is decidedly unclear. Since cable TV companies may elect to send digital signals to their customers, you may wind up needing a converter box. Who provides and pays for it? That’s up to the cable company. You’ll need to ask your provider what the future holds for you.
Need a converter box? Join the crowd. According to helpful information provided by the federal government, “Converter boxes are expected to be available in early 2008 at retailers where you would normally buy consumer electronics products. Before shopping for your converter box, you might want to call ahead to make sure retailers have converter boxes available.” To us that means Radio Shack, and sure enough, the official Radio Shack Web site whoops and hollers about a Zenith converter box for about $60. “Available at most stores,” says the promo. We checked: According to the Web site, there aren’t any converters in stores anywhere near Los Angeles or Phoenix. So much for “early 2008.”
When the boxes eventually become available, the government anticipates they’ll sell at a price starting near $60. A lot of scratch just to keep your signal coming in. To sweeten the deal, Uncle Sam says it will give every American family who wants them, two certificates good for $40 each toward the purchase of a converter box. Where do you get them?
You can apply for them online at www.dtv2009.gov, or you can phone (888) 388-2009. Since there are only 22.25 million coupons available, they’ll probably be a rush. But like anything else, there’s another catch. The coupons expire three months after issuance. If you mess about, or like us, you can’t find a box in time, the coupons become worthless and cannot be replaced. If this looks like a typical bureaucratic snafu, don’t blame us, we’re just the messengers.
Finally, be aware that there are other potential pitfalls in this whole affair. If you RV in an area where TV reception is marginal, and you’ve learned to live with “ghosts,” and “sound drop outs,” you may find that the switch to digital TV is even more intolerable than the rigmarole outlined above. Digital TV is not a matter of, “good picture/bad picture,” but rather a case of “good picture/no picture.”
For folks at home, “getting the big picture,” may mean sticking your antenna up higher than it is today. For RVers, once our antennas are cranked up there is no matter of sticking them higher. Should you get into a “fringe” area and have a real television addiction, best you have a stack of DVDs or VCR tapes to watch.
One last thing: If you have problems keeping track of your TV remote control, cheer up. Now you can misplace another one—seems like all converter boxes come equipped with those maddening button boxes.
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. They also provide great resources in their book, Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit www.icanrv.com for more information.