by Steve Waltke

After doing research and setting up several digital TV converter boxes, I thought I would share my information related to understanding and setting up equipment for receiving digital television broadcasts.

If you currently subscribe to a cable or satellite service, then this article really doesn't apply to you. However, you may find it useful to keep handy in case you become fed up with the subscriber fees. Or maybe you don't want to spend the $400 on a new digital TV. If you are using rabbit ears or an exterior antenna with your TV, then keep reading!

Due to federal law, starting in February 2009 all commercial TV stations must begin broadcasting in digital format. So if you want to continue to watch TV, you will have to go digital. You don't need to be a rocket scientist to use the new digital broadcast technology, but you will need to learn a few new things. I will attempt to explain how to go digital as inexpensively and easily as possible. Coupon Program

From now through February 2009, the federal government will give you a maximum of two free coupons, each worth $40, to put toward the purchase of a digital converter box. The price range for these boxes goes from $50 to $80. It is important to remember that the coupon expires 90 days after it is sent to you. There will be no replacements for lost or unused expired coupons. To request your coupons, call the NTIA at 1-888-388-2009 or fill out an online request at

If you phone in your request, the process is accomplished by a relatively capable high-quality automated voice recognition system. At the end the system will tell you the approximate date you will receive your coupons in the mail and will give you a confirmation number. Be sure to make a note of this number in case there is a problem.

Anyone can purchase a digital converter box from any store that sells electronics and TVs. You are not required to have one of the government coupons in order to purchase a converter box.

My recommendation for stores that are truly knowledgeable regarding what you will need and how to make the experience successful are Best Buy and Radio Shack. Radio Shack has a wider selection of unique adapters and cables which you may need. But it's highly likely that you won't need anything except your new converter box, unless you own a very old TV that has the sets of screws to which you attach your rabbit ears or external antenna, and/or have a very old style of connectors on your rabbit ears or external antenna.

WGBH-TV's Accessible Media and Technology Project has determined that there are at least two brands of converter boxes that will allow you to turn on the audio description function by pressing the specific button labeled "CC/Audio" on the remote control. Those are the Digital Stream (found at Radio Shack) and the "Insignia" brand (found at Best Buy).

Connecting the Box

When you connect your new converter box, you connect it to the VHF connections on the TV, because the box will sort out the various signals. You will notice if you are also buying a new set of rabbit ears that they look just like they have for decades, except now they have what is called a coaxial style connector instead of the little metal horseshoes.

When you open the box, you'll find a plastic box measuring approximately 10" by 8" by 2", a remote control, batteries, and at least one cable with co-ax connectors on each end, as well as a print instruction manual. Place the converter box on a solid, safe surface, then disconnect your rabbit ears or external antenna from the back of your TV set. Ideally, the next step is to attach the rabbit ears or antenna to the connector that is labeled antenna input on the back of the new converter box. However, you may discover that you need to purchase an adapter that will make it possible to connect your ears or antenna to the new box. The type of adapter will depend on the type of connector your ears or antenna have on the end of the cable as well as the type of connectors available on the back of the converter box. Whatever adapter you may need, it probably won't cost more than $10.

The next step is to remove the new cable from the product's box and attach it to the connector labeled antenna output, located on the rear of the converter box. Then find the opposite end of the cable and attach it to the VHF terminals on your TV set (in most cases, they're on the back of your TV). Depending on the style and age of your TV set, you might need an adapter to make the connection possible.

While you're investigating the rear panel of the converter box, you will notice several other connectors, different in style from the antenna input and output. These are not essential to the reception of digital broadcast TV; they are meant to accomplish such chores as sending the TV antenna signal to the VCR, DVD and stereo sound systems, etc.

Some readers may need sighted assistance to set up and connect their converter boxes. If all else fails, remember that the instruction manual will have phone numbers listed for customer service and technical assistance. It's even possible that the company has the manual in an alternate format, too. In any event, someone has to be there who can look at the print digital menus and perform the option selections and read the instructions that will appear on the TV screen while you are setting up the system.

Next, turn on the power for the TV set, then select either channel 3 or 4. Which channel is correct depends on the manufacturer's choice; the manual will include this information. Then install the batteries in the remote control. You will have to use the remote to operate the converter box, as most boxes have no buttons on them except for the power on/off switch.

Then press the power-on switch on the converter box. There will be several small LED lights on the front panel; one of these is the "power on" indicator. Usually there will be a second indicator light lit indicating that the box is successfully receiving a channel transmission.

Going Digital

The next step is the new digital experience. Pick up that remote control and make it a reality. Press the remote control's "power on" button.

Next you must activate the set-up menu, a must for the reception of any digital broadcast channels. It has a variety of options from which to choose, just like a restaurant menu. When you activate the set-up page, the menu options will show on the TV screen.

Many of us are aware that manufacturers' product instruction manuals are notoriously shabby, likely to be incomplete or inaccurate, or simply incomprehensible. This problem makes it tough for people to understand or effectively communicate the information we need, so make a point of taking notes and re-tracing procedures until you are assured that you are in control and on track.

All brands of converter boxes will have a function called auto-scan; this is the essential function the box must accomplish. It is a process of recognizing, the first time you use the box, all the digital channels that are available to you. Some brands may have designed a procedure that is practical and can be done in the future by a blind person without sighted help.

Once you have successfully accomplished the auto-scan, there might be a couple of other options in the set-up menu that you need to fiddle with. The nice thing is that once you've finished the set-up procedure, you probably won't have to pay any attention to this function for years to come.

Now you're set! Simply turn on the TV, then turn on the converter box, press "power on" on the remote control, then press the numbered buttons to get you to your desired channel. Or press channel up or channel down to jump to the channel you want.

Other Features

There will be a variety of useful but non-essential features available to digital TV users. To access them, press various buttons on the remote control, including four arrow buttons (one each pointing up, down, right and left). Whether a user can actually use these features while not being able to see the print that appears on the screen will largely depend on the talents of the design engineers of the particular manufacturer. Curious and adventurous users will just have to experiment to learn what can be accessed.

One feature that will take some getting used to is the fact that your favorite station will probably be broadcasting more than one channel from the one station. If you like PBS channel 9, now that section is maybe transmitting 3, 4 or 5 digital channels. So you could watch opera on channel 9.1, or change to "This Old House" on channel 9.2, or "The News Hour" on channel 9.3. So it's to your benefit to contact each of the stations and ask how many channels they have. Remember, the digital broadcast signal is narrower than the old analog signal, so you may find that you have to fiddle with the position of the ears or antenna more than you used to. However, you should be able to receive every channel that you received in the past and maybe even one or two that were of such poor quality that you never watched it. Happy viewing!

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