Iowa Public Television

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Where Did All the Converter Boxes Go?

For the last few weeks I have had a number of people at presentations and online mention that the stores in their area don't have converter boxes in stock at this point. This has caused me to do a little market research on my own and I have discovered that there are many stores that don't have boxes in stock and aren't expecting them to be back in stock until next month. This raises a couple of questions. The first is why. I have asked a number of stores about this and they don't seem to have a good answer. Basically what I hear is that most stores were not expecting the volume of demand that they received. While this may be true, it doesn't explain why they cannot get boxes in until sometime next month. The last I had heard these things were being manufactured in huge quantities. I think the real reason is something that I addressed a few weeks ago. It has to do with most of the converter boxes inability to pass the antenna feed through to the television when the box is not in service, like a video tape recorder does when it is turned off. I know a number of manufacturers are in the process of redesigning and recertifying their boxes to include this feature. The redesign is quite frankly pretty minimal so that shouldn't take much time but there is the process of recertifying the box so that it qualifies for the coupon program. This program is administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and I am not sure what the procedure is for qualifying the converters but I know at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January of this year I saw a number of boxes at various manufacturers displays that were all in the process of qualifying and it was almost three months or more until they started appearing on shelves.

That leads to the even more important question regarding people who have unused coupons that may expire before the boxes are available again. What can those people do? A number of the stores that I spoke with offered the option of preordering the boxes and using the coupons before they expire. The store would process the sale and then contact you when the box is in. Sadly, none of the stores that I was at had a box setup for demonstration so you could see how it worked to determine if this was the one you wanted so you end up buying blind. I sincerely doubt that you would end up buying a box that didn't work but it might not have all the features that you want.

On June 18th, Senator Tom Harkin and a number of others in the Senate sent a letter to the NTIA calling on them to reissue expired coupons. So far, I have not seen any response from NTIA on this. I have also contacted them and asked them what options consumers have and as yet I have not seen a reply. As soon as I do, I will post an update. In the meantime, if you would like to try and use your coupons before they expire, I suggest that you look on-line for vendors that may have boxes in stock.

Monday, June 16, 2008

30-Minute DTV Program June 26 at 6:30 p.m.!

Iowa Broadcasters Join to Present Local Digital Television Education Program Thursday, June 26

New 30-minute program provides answers to common questions about DTV

(Johnston, Iowa) -- Viewers across Iowa – and across the country – have been inundated with messages about digital television in the past several months. But many Iowans are still left with basic questions – what is DTV? Why is the transition happening? What are these converter boxes? Do I need a new TV?

To answer these questions for Iowans, the Iowa Broadcasters Association will present Iowa DTV Answers to all Iowans this month. This new, local 30-minute program, produced by Iowa Public Television, will inform Iowa viewers about the digital television transition, alleviate concerns about the change, and encourage viewers to take action. Iowa DTV Answers will be broadcast commercial-free on most Iowa television stations on Thursday, June 26 at 6:30 p.m. (Check local listings for broadcast and repeat times.)

The program will feature real Iowans from across the state dealing with real situations and solutions regarding the DTV conversion.

Some of the topics covered on Iowa DTV Answers include:

  • Digital television definition
  • DTV transition explanation
  • DTV converter boxes
  • Defining HD & SD
  • Advice on buying a new digital TV
  • Information for cable and satellite subscribers

Viewers with questions about the program should contact the Iowa Broadcasters Association at 515-224-7237. For general information about the digital television transition in Iowa, visit or

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Friday, June 6, 2008

What Digital Television Converter Box is Right for Me?

This is one of the questions this is frequently asked by viewers calling the station or attending the DTV information sessions that IPTV is putting on throughout the state. As of this blog entry on June 6, 2008 there are currently 90 different models of coupon eligible converter boxes (CECB’s) listed by the National Telecommunication Information Administration’s at their official information website ( I am in the process of acquiring one of each model so that I can test the units and see how well they perform. However, it is not my intent to create grade the CECB or recommend one over the other because from my testing so far, I have found that all of the boxes do what they need to do which is receive digital television, convert it to analog and output it so that an analog television can still be used. Certainly if I find a box that doesn’t do these basic functions I will let the people who read this blog or call the station or attend the information session know that there are problems with a specific unit but so far, I haven’t found one yet that fails to work.

So if they all work and there are 90 or so different models out there, how do you pick one? Well, there are a few “features” that I do recommend that you look for but keep in mind these “features” were not required to be included in the CECB but as I have gained more experience with various models I have dealt with a few issues. One of the first features I would suggest looking for on the box is a power switch. I realize that most of us wouldn’t consider the power switch to be a feature but it was not required and I have one box from Digital Stream that works very well but doesn’t have any control switches so everything must be done using the remote control. If you’re like me and you occasionally misplace the TV remote, at least you can get up and walk to the set and turn it on but with this particular unit, without the remote you cannot even turn it on. I’d also suggest that you look for channel up/down controls on the box for pretty much the same reason, if you’ve misplaced the remote you will probably want to be able to change channels as well as turn the box on.

Another feature to look for is called “antenna pass through” or “antenna bypass.” You probably already know about this but haven’t really known what it was. If you have a VCR hooked up so that you’re antenna is feeding into the VCR’s antenna input and then another piece of antenna line goes from the VCR to the antenna input of the television you have used this feature. This is what allows the signals coming in from the antenna to continue on to the television even when the VCR is turned off. Very few of the CECB’s (22 out of the current 90) have this feature so when the converter box is turned off, the antenna signals no longer continue to the television. What makes this feature important is that right now, full powered television stations are broadcasting both analog and digital signals and if you want to watch an analog service after installing a converter box, unless it has this pass through capability you must physically disconnect the converter box from the antenna and reconnect the antenna to the television. So is this a big deal after the analog shutoff? It may be, depending on where you live and what stations you watch. Although in February of 2009, all full powered television stations will stop broadcasting analog signals and only broadcast digital signal, there is whole group of television stations call low powered television or translators that may (and many probably will) continue to broadcast analog television services because the federal mandate for digital conversion is only for full powered stations. If you happen to live in an area where there is a mix of full powered and low powered stations, you may want to be able to receive both. The rules for the converter boxes required that they could only receive digital television so the boxes cannot receive and analog signal, including low power so the only way to watch them is to use the analog tuner in the television. Now at some point in the future, these low powered stations and translators will convert to digital operation but until that happens there will probably be a mix of services in many areas. In Iowa, IPTV uses 8 translators to service viewers in the northwest corner, the northeast corner and southeast corner of the state. Even though there is no requirement to convert our translators to digital, we will begin that conversion after the analog shutoff and should be 100% digital before spring. It is our belief that trying to maintain an analog and digital service will be very confusing for the audience and will prevent people receiving the analog service from getting all the additional programming that will be part of our digital multicast services.

I think there is some fallout from this feature missing since I have had a number of people tell me that they have visited stores that are now out of converter boxes. What I believe is happening is that a number of manufacturer that are planning on adding this feature have suspended production of their CECB’s that don’t do antenna pass through and are gearing up to begin production and delivery of converters that do have this feature. I have spoken to one manufacturer that has confirmed this and knows that a number of others are doing the same thing. However, there are a number of boxes out there that already have this feature and are available and more will be showing up pretty quick since.

Beyond what I have mentioned, I like to tell people that prior to going out and buying the converter, spend some time looking at your current television remote control. This is the user interface that you use the most to watch television. Look at what features your current remote control has that you use. If you ping pong back and forth between two channels like I do when watching football, the control that allows you to flip flop between channels may be important to you. If you’re using an indoor antenna, having the signal strength display as button on the remote control rather than buried in menus may be important. Being able to turn on and off closed captioning without going to a menu may be important to you. What I am getting at is that you should figure out how you watch television and then when shopping for converters, ask to see the remote control and make sure that the features that you want to have quick access to are on the remote. If they aren’t, that doesn’t make the converter box a bad unit but it may not be what you want so pick another one. The whole idea here is for you to be able to continue to watch television the way you currently do so minimize the amount of change you have to make.