The Transition to Digital Television

Currently, approximately 84% of households receive television service either from cable companies such as Comcast, Charter, RCN, or Verizon, or from satellite television providers.

All providers offer some digital TV service. Some transmit a combination of analog and digital signals, and others transmit only digital service. For example, satellite TV is already all digital.

Why transition to digital television?
Digital service offers many improvements in capacity, picture quality, and features. People with high-definition digital television sets and digital TV service often receive crisper, clearer programs. In addition, digital signals enable television providers to carry more movies on demand, additional channels, and new services. Capacity is particularly critical because high-definition programs require many times the bandwidth of analog shows.

When will Cable TV providers change to digital?
Verizon already transmits all programs digitally. Comcast now provides both analog and digital TV service, and has not announced when they will convert to an all digital format. RCN is in the process of converting all of its Massachusetts service to digital.

How will the digital conversion impact customers?
Only customers that do not currently have set-top boxes for each television will need to change anything. For example, according to RCN, 20% of their customers don’t have a set-top box. Almost all of these customers will need a set-top box for every television they wish to connect to cable television.

Why do customers with high-definition digital TVs need set-top boxes for digital cable service?
Set-top boxes make cable carriers’ service compatible with customers’ TVs. Cable providers use a different scheme, QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation) than terrestrial broadcasters such as PBS, and ABC, which use ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) to transmit digital signals. Also, cable providers scramble signals on most of channels.

Which cable customers do not need a set-top box?
Only those customers that both:

  • Subscribe to a basic cable TV package of only terrestrial channels. (These comprise national broadcasters such as ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, and Fox plus local access channels, which broadcast for example, town meeting sessions, public school shows, and local town programs.) These channels are not scrambled.
  • Have advanced high-definition televisions with QAM tuners. Customers can either check their TV documentation or contact their TV manufacturer to find out if they have QAM tuners. Not all high-definition televisions have QAM tuners.

What about the 14% of people without cable TV or satellite television?
These folks’ service is called “over the air” or terrestrial television because TV signals are transmitted over the air from TV towers to televisions. The federal government has mandated that these television signals be transitioned to an all-digital format after February 17, 2009.

How will the change to digital “over the air” TV impact these viewers?
After June 12, 2009, people with older, non-high definition or non-digital televisions will need converters and antennas to receive “over the air” TV signals. For information on coupons to subsidize the cost of converters call 1-888-388-2009 or 1-888-835-5322 (TTY). For instructions on hooking up converters and antennas go to -888-225-5322 or 1-888-835-5322 (TTY) or Consumers who subscribe to cable or satellite TV will not be affected by the February 17th transition to digital television.

Extension of the Feb. 17th date
In early February 2009, the federal government extended the deadline for which over-the-air television broadcasters must switch to all digital broadcasts. The new date is June 12th 2009. However, stations have the option to change to digital earlier than June 12th. Many have done so.

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