Digital TV Transition

In 1996, Congress passed legislation to improve public safety communication by freeing space on the telecommunications spectrum through what is known as the Digital Transition. The legislation required all full-power television stations to stop broadcasting their over-the-air signals in analog format and, beginning at 12:01 a.m. on February 18, 2009, transmitting all broadcasts in digital format only.

Page updated on Nov 20, 2017 at 3:13 PM

Digital television is an advanced broadcasting technology that will enable broadcasters to offer television with better picture and sound quality, while freeing up parts of the scarce and valuable broadcast spectrum. Consumers will also receive more programming options and better-quality audio and video.    Portions of the analog spectrum can then be used for other important services, such as public and safety services (police and fire departments, emergency rescue), and advanced wireless services.

In anticipation of the change, TV stations serving all markets in the United States have already converted their broadcasts and are airing digital television programming today, although most will simultaneously continue to provide analog programming through February 17, 2009. 

The digital television (DTV) transition has two parts: 1) broadcasters must upgrade to digital transmission, and 2) viewers of over-the-air TV must upgrade to digital reception. Even with a  digital-to-analog converter box, your current analog television will not be capable of taking full advantage of DTV. To enjoy the full picture quality and benefits of DTV, you may want to purchase a new DTV set. But before you do, there are a few things to consider.

Analog TVs Will Need Additional Equipment to Receive Over-the-Air Television When the DTV Transition Ends

If you have one or more televisions that receive free over-the-air programming, the type of TV you own is very important.

  • Consumers who rely on antennas and "rabbit ears" to receive over-the-air broadcast signals (on TV sets with only analog tuners) will need to obtain separate  digital-to-analog set-top converter boxes to watch over-the-air TV. These boxes receive digital signals and convert them into analog format for display on analog TVs. Analog sets connected to such  converter boxes will display digital broadcasts, but not necessarily in the full, original digital quality. This  converter box will also enable you to see any additional multicast programming that your local stations are offering.
  • A digital television (a TV with an internal  digital tuner) will allow you to continue to watch free over-the-air programming after February 17, 2009.

Converter Box Coupon Program

To help consumers with the DTV transition, the Government established the  Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a part of the Department of Commerce, administers this program.
From now through March 31, 2009, every household in the United States is eligible to receive up to two coupons (worth $40 each) toward the purchase of up to two eligible  digital-to-analog converter boxes. Consumers can fill out applications to receive the coupons by visiting The coupons may only be used for eligible converter boxes sold at participating consumer electronics retailers who are certified by the NTIA.  Coupons must be used at the time of purchase and will expire 90 days after they are mailed to you.  Manufacturers estimate that  digital-to-analog converter boxes will sell from $40 to $70 each and that this is a one-time cost. For more information on the Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program, visit or call 1-888-388-2009 (voice) or 1-877-530-2634 (TTY).

Buying a Digital Television

The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC)  digital tuner rule specified that all televisions manufactured after March 1, 2007 must include  digital tuners. This prohibits the manufacture, import, or interstate shipment of any device containing an analog tuner, unless it also contains a  digital tuner. Despite this prohibition on manufacture and shipment, retailers may continue to sell analog-only devices from existing inventory. As a result, at the point of sale, many consumers may not be aware that this equipment will not be able to receive over-the-air-television signals after February 17, 2009.

To address this issue, the FCC has adopted a rule requiring sellers to display the following text if they are selling analog-only TV equipment.

Consumer Alert

This television receiver has only an analog broadcast tuner and will require a  converter box after February 17, 2009, to receive over-the-air broadcasts with an antenna because of the Nation's transition to digital broadcasting. Analog-only TVs should continue to work as before with cable and satellite TV services, gaming consoles, VCRs, DVD players, and similar products. For more information, call the Federal Communications Commission at 1-888-225-5322 (TTY: 1-888-835-5322) or visit

Digital Television Quality Levels

There are many quality levels of digital television programming. When buying a digital television, make sure you understand what type of programming you would like to receive, and then select the television with the corresponding level of digital television.  The most common are:

  • Standard Definition TV (SDTV) is the baseline display and resolution for both analog and digital broadcast.  Transmission of SDTV may be in either the traditional (4:3) or wide-screen (16:9) format. 
  • Enhanced Definition TV (EDTV) is a step up from analog television.  EDTV comes in widescreen (16:9) or traditional (4:3) format and provides better picture quality than SDTV, but not as high as HDTV.  You can watch HDTV programming on an SDTV set. However, the picture quality will be limited to what the SDTV set can display. 
  • High Definition TV (HDTV) provides the highest resolution and picture quality of all digital broadcast formats. Combined with digitally enhanced sound technology, HDTV sets new standards for sound and picture quality in television. (Note: HDTV and digital TV are not the same thing: HDTV is one format of digital TV.) 

Cable and Satellite TV

Cable and satellite TV providers already receive digital signals and transmit them to their subscribers. Residents of Alexandria who have Comcast cable will not have to make any changes for the time being.  Analog cable customers will still receive their cable television broadcasts because Comcast will convert the digital signal into to an analog signal (downconversion) for a limited time. While this means you do not need to have a  digital box to receive television service, keep in mind that Comcast will eventually require their customers to upgrade to digital service when they cease simulcasting programs in the downconverted format. 

Customers with digital cable boxes for every television set in their home will not be affected by the digital transition and do not need to buy additional converter boxes or upgrade their televisions. Cable companies are not required to switch to digital service, although they may choose to make their service all or partially digital. The Federal Communications Commission requires cable companies to continue providing local stations in analog as long as they provide any analog service, for up to three years after February 17, 2009. In 2011, The FCC will decide if this service should extend beyond February 17, 2012.  For more information on analog and digital cable service, please contact Comcast of Alexandria at 703-823-3000 or visit them at

Satellite customers who do not receive local channels through their DBS provider may be affected by the transition and may need new or additional DTV equipment to receive and view digital programming. For more information contact your satellite provider. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

What is the difference between analog and digital television broadcasting?

Analog technology has been used for the past 50 years to transmit conventional TV signals to consumers. Most current television transmissions are received through analog television sets. Analog broadcasting uses less-efficient and lower-quality radio frequency (RF) waves to transmit and display pictures and sound.  Analog signals vary continuously, creating fluctuations in color and brightness. 

"Digital" refers to the circuitry in which data-carrying signals are restricted to one of two voltage levels, corresponding to zeroes and ones. Digital television (DTV) is, therefore, virtually free of interference because it is only carried on one voltage level at a time.   "Digital TV" is an umbrella term
encompassing High-definition Television and several other applications, including Standard Definition Television, datacasting,  multicasting and interactivity.  

How do I know if my television is analog or digital?

First, you must determine if your TV set has something called a " digital tuner" already built in. The best way to find out if your TV set has a built in  digital tuner to consult your owner's manual or check with the manufacturer's Web site. You can also check the back of your TV to see if your set has an input connection labeled "digital input" or " ATSC" (for Advanced Television Systems Committee, which developed the DTV format). TV sets manufactured before 1998 typically did not have  digital tuners. Most are traditional "analog" sets that cannot display digital TV signals without either a special converter or a cable TV connection. Some big-screen and projection TV sets made between 1998 and 2004 may have built-in  digital tuners inside.

If your television set is labeled as "analog" or " NTSC," but is NOT labeled as containing a  digital tuner, it contains an analog tuner only. Sets manufactured since 2004 began to include built-in  digital tuners that allow reception of the new digital over-the-air broadcasts; however, even some of the newer TV sets are purely display monitors that lack the internal circuitry needed to pick up digital broadcasts.  Usually, these sets have been advertised as "HD-ready" or "HDTV monitor" sets, which means they can display digital and high-definition signals.  However, you will also need a special converter box.

What happens if I do nothing?

Viewers who subscribe to direct broadcast satellite or cable television will not need to buy additional converter boxes for televisions connected to those services. Unless your televisions are digital, connected to cable, satellite, or to a converter box, they will no longer be able to "see" full power broadcast TV signals. Your older sets will continue to work for as long as they operate if they're connected to cable, satellite, or to a special add-on  digital tuner/converter.

I have a new HDTV set, how do I get real high-definition television?

Comcast can connect you to Digital Cable with HDTV if you wish to subscribe to HDTV cable television service. Or, you can mount a special antenna to your home to receive broadcast TV HD channels that are available in your area.  For more information on choosing the right antenna for your home, visit the Consumer Electronics Association's antenna mapping program at

What if I'm not a cable or satellite customer-- and don't want to become one--but still want to use my old TV sets?

If you're not a cable or satellite customer and don't wish to become one, you can buy a special add-on "converter" that will let your old TV sets pick up and display over-the-air digital signals. These converters will be available from retailers in 2008, and you can apply for up to two vouchers from the federal government that can help pay for them.  For more information on the converter coupon program, go to, or call, toll-free, 1-888-DTV-2009.

If I Buy a DTV, will my VCR, DVD player, camcorder, video games, Or other equipment still work?

VCR's, DVD players, camcorders and video games will continue to work, even if they are only analog-capable; however, may not provide digital-quality picture and sound. Manufacturers are producing a number of different connectors to hook equipment together and improve picture and sound quality. Check with your equipment retailer to determine the types of connectors that will work with your equipment. 

How can I get help in paying for the equipment I'll need?

If you have older analog TV sets, and want to continue using them, you'll need to connect them to cable or satellite service, or to a special digital-to-analog converter, to continue receiving full power TV signals. To buy a special digital-to-analog converter from a local electronics store, you can get up to two vouchers, worth $40 each, that will help pay for the devices. Each home can request up to two coupons for the converter boxes, which are expected to cost between $50 and $75 each. You will receive the coupons in the mail, and you'll have three months from the time of mailing to redeem them.  More information on the government's converter coupon program is available at, or by calling a toll-free number, 1-888-DTV-2009.

What should I do with my old TV?

If you decide to buy a digital TV and no longer want your old analog TV, look for opportunities to recycle it. Recycled TV sets yield valuable materials from the circuit boards, metal wiring, leaded glass, and plastics.  The City provides drop-off electronics recycling service at its household hazardous waste collection site, located at 3600 Wheeler Avenue.  In addition to televisions, the City accepts computers, VCRs, printers, stereos, cellular phones, and many other types of electronics (however, no appliances including air conditioners, dehumidifiers, microwaves, etc. are allowed).  Electronics can be dropped off on Mondays and Saturdays between 7:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.  Proof of City of Alexandria residency is required to drop off electronics at the site.  For more information, visit

For many working electronic products, donation is a good option because it facilitates reuse and extends the product life. However, with the switch to digital broadcasting, many charitable organizations will no longer be accepting analog TVs. Please check with the organization before you drop off your old electronics.


ATSC stands for the Advanced Television Systems Committee, an international, non-profit organization developing the standards for digital television, fosters their implementation and recommends practices to advance terrestrial digital television broadcasting and to facilitate interoperability with other media

Digital Cable Ready TV (DCR)
Also referred to as "plug-and-play," this is a DTV or other device for digital cable customers that plugs directly into the cable jack, and does not require a separate set-top box to view analog and unscrambled digital cable. Used with a CableCARD, it can receive scrambled programming such as premium services.

Digital Converter Box
Also referred to as a "digital-to-analog converter box," this is a stand-alone device that receives, decodes, and converts over-the-air digital programming into analog. When connected to an analog television, it permits digital programming to be displayed in analog.

Digital Tuner
A digital tuner serves as the decoder required to receive and display digital broadcasts. It can be included inside TV sets or via a set-top box.

Downconverting is the process by which a high resolution signal is reduced to a lower resolution for display. Usually, extra lines are simply ignored when drawing the lower resolution image, but sometimes more sophisticated methods are used.  The digital converter sold for the digital transition will take the digital signal produced by full-power television stations and scale it down for display on an analog television.

Multicasting is made possible by digital technology to allow each digital broadcast station to split its bit stream into 2, 3, 4 or more individual channels of programming and/or data services (for example, on channel 7, you could watch 7-1, 7-2, 7-3 or 7-4).

Short for the National Television Standards Committee who developed it in 1953, NTSC is a color TV standard that uses an interlaced frame composed of two individual fields (horizontal and vertical) that are combined to form the picture. 
Set-top Converter Box: This unit sits on top of the viewer's analog TV, receives the Digital TV signal, converts it to an analog signal, and then sends that signal on to the analog TV

Upconverting is a process by which a standard definition picture is changed to a simulated high-definition picture.  Displays are made up of pixels which make up each row and column of the video output on the display area.  Different display sizes and different resolution standards require resolution adaptation to fit one display output into another.  Upconverting, otherwise known as video scaling, resizes and reformats video from one standard to another so the picture can be effectively viewed in the new output.