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Converter boxes flying off shelves in the region

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Jessica Vent, a sales associate at Sears, demonstrates how to hook up a DTV converter box. In February, television stations will switch to 100 percent digital broadcasting, and any TVs that are not digital will need the converter boxes to access stations. Photo by Tim Jaynes, Staff
SIKESTON -- People around the nation are preparing for television's switch to digital broadcasting in February. And locally, the converter boxes to redirect the signals are flying off the shelves.

"We actually have a waiting list on the boxes," said Jessica Vent, a sales associate at Sears in Sikeston. "The government didn't make as many as they need -- they didn't see as many people needing them."

Some consumers are upgrading their TVs from analog-only to digital, said Vent. But a majority are buying the converter boxes.

"If they are currently happy with their TV, they'll come in here and look for those converter boxes," said Matthew Short, a sales associate at Wal-Mart. He said they, too, quickly run out of the converter boxes, but keep a waiting list and typically get weekly shipments.

At midnight on Feb. 17, all full-power television stations in the United States will stop broadcasting in analog and switch to 100 percent digital broadcasting.

DTV converter boxes will allow those with analog televisions -- anything more than two or three years old and other models -- to continue tuning in.

The government describes the box as "an easy-to-install electronic device that hooks up to your analog television set and over-the-air antenna. The box converts the digital television signal into an analog format, making it viewable on your analog TV set," according to www.dtv2009.gov.

"They're pretty small -- like a mini DVD player," Vent said of the boxes. "Basically, you just have to plug it in -- if you have a regular antenna, just plug it into the converter box and then use a cable chord to connect it to the TV. It's just like a transfer box in between."

Smart called the converter box hookup simple. "It's just like the standard rabbit ears now," he said.

Those who aren't sure whether their TV is digital can look at their manual -- anything that says SDTV, DTV or digital integrated tuner are OK, said Short. And if anyone is having trouble distinguishing that, they can talk to sales associates at either store for help.

The boxes retail about $50 each, said Vent and Short. To make it more affordable, the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration is issuing each household up to two $40 coupons to help defray the cost.

One important thing for consumers to be aware of is that the coupons expire 90 days after they are issued. "We, nor any other retailer, can accept them after that," said Short. He encouraged people to go out and buy the converter box -- or get on a waiting list -- as soon as the coupons are received.

Applications for the coupons can be made online at www.dtv2009.gov. They can also be made over the phone by calling 1-888-DTV-2009, a 24-hour hotline.

The switch to digital will have positive results.

"Some people are afraid they are going to lose channels, but they will actually get more," said Small. Each channel, he said, will have at least four sub-channels -- which will provide more choices for those who don't subscribe to cable services.

"It has better programming choices, better sound quality and better picture quality," Short continued.

Vent said analog "has to go over and around things' such as mountains and other structures. "But digital has such a spread-out wavelength and can go through them," she said.

The switch will also free up some airwaves, which will provide better radio traffic for emergency personnel, said Short.