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Leisure Spending

Get Ready for Digital Television

If your TV relies on an antenna for reception, it's time to upgrade with a digital converter box.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in the April 2009 issue of Kiplinger's Retirement Report. To subscribe, click here.

You may think your TV system works just fine. But on June 12, TV stations that are still broadcasting with analog technology will switch to digital. You may need to make some simple moves by then if you don't want to miss your favorite TV programs.

One reason Congress decided to make the switch was to free up the broadcast spectrum for police, fire department and rescue squad communications. Also, some parts of the spectrum will be auctioned off to companies that will provide more wireless services.

The new digital system (DTV) allows TV stations to offer superior picture and sound quality, as well as additional channels and programs. The DTV switchover was originally slated for February 17, 2009, and some stations have already made the change. Because so many consumers were not prepared, Congress extended the deadline to mid June.

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The DTV switch won't affect you if your programs are delivered by cable, fiber optics or satellite. However, some cable providers do require subscribers with analog TVs to rent a digital cable box. Call your cable provider if you think you'll need a digital cable box.

If you get broadcasts using an indoor or a rooftop antenna, you don't have to buy a new digital TV. Instead, you can buy a converter box, which costs $50 to $80, depending on its features. Because the federal government is providing $40 coupons to defray the price of the box, a digital upgrade won't cost much.

You can order the $40 coupon by calling 888-388-2009 or by visiting the TV Converter Box Coupon program Web site at www.dtv2009.gov. A household can order up to two coupons. Each TV that receives over-the-air broadcasts needs a converter box, so you may need more than one voucher.

Earlier this year, there was a waiting list of four to six weeks for the coupons, but that's pretty much gone. You should receive your coupon within a few days after ordering one.

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You can find a converter box at most retailers that sell consumer electronics. For most people, a no-frills converter box should be fine. The pricier boxes include such features as a special connector for a surround-sound theater system.

It's easy to install a digital converter box. The TV and antenna connect to the back of the box. After turning on the equipment and running an automatic scan to find the new digital channels, you're done.

If you need assistance, many senior centers are guiding retirees through the digital switchover. The National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, for instance, is reaching out to Asian seniors in many U.S. cities.

Center spokesperson Derek Wing says that while seniors may have heard the term "DTV," they're not always sure what it means. "You hear the buzzword and you sort of have an idea of what it's about," says Wing. "But when we've asked [seniors] specifically about the difference between digital and analog, they had no idea."

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A Clearer Picture

Wah Kwong, 75, learned about DTV through the Asian center. Kwong, who lives in Renton, Wash., managed much of the upgrade himself. He ordered the $40 coupon by filling out a printed application and faxing it to the TV Converter Box Coupon program. With the $40 coupon, the converter box he bought at Wal-Mart cost $15. His son helped him install it.

Kwong is pleased with the digital picture. "It's much better," he says. "It's very clear. I can even receive a Chinese channel."

Senior Connections, which provides services such as Meals on Wheels and home repair for retirees in the Atlanta metro area, is also helping with DTV upgrades, says Lindy Start, the group's director of customer service.

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The group helped Gertrude Grimes, 68, order her coupon, buy the converter and get everything running. Because Grimes hadn't given much thought to DTV, Senior Connections' help was a big plus. "I called them for something else, and they asked if I needed a converter box," she says. "That was really nice."

If you need more information on DTV, including installation instructions, go to www.dtv.gov. The Federal Communications Commission has also set up a consumer hotline at 888-225-5322.

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