Digital TV transition: 46.2 million converter boxes later, was it worth it?

The digital TV transition went live almost a year ago on June 12, 2009, when the FTC flipped the switch and turned off the analog television signals that many consumers relied on for entertainment. As part of the digital TV transition, the government made converter box coupons available to Americans who received their programing over the air. It's estimated that 46.2 million boxes were sold as part of the coupon program, providing $2.5 billion in retail revenue as viewers purchased boxes, new antennas and television sets, according to Digital Tech Consulting.

Looking back on the past year of digital TV,, an informational site about consumer electronics which can help shoppers find manuals and research purchases, asked more than 200 older visitors to their website what the digital TV transition meant one year later.

While the majority of respondents were unaffected by the DTV transition, because they have cable or satellite service, and many over-the-air viewers purchased a converter box as part of the government program, there were still a good number of individuals who took alternate routes to keep their TV signal going.

Forty-three percent of respondents to Retrevo purchased a new TV, antenna or switched to a cable or satellite provider in order to prepare for the switch to digital, causing upticks in business at consumer electronics retailers and giving cable TV installation workers a busy year. Unfortunately it's not all Andy Griffith reruns and All-star games; 12% of respondents report that since the switch they have worse reception.

The change in reception, and perception of the DTV transition, can vary greatly from one side of a small town to another. In Bluffton, Ohio a friend who lives on one edge of town saw his reception worsen after the switch which required him to purchase a new antenna in order to watch any programing; while others a few miles away were enjoying their new digital signals without any extra expense.

The last converter box coupon has expired and as part of the survey, Retrevo asked respondents, "What has been the experience with your converter box?" For most users the DTV converter box worked, but some didn't even hook the box, which was in high demand last year, up to their TV. As these converter box stockpilers come to realize they no longer need the converter box, the devices are ending up in garage sales and on eBay.

My co-worker, who lives on the other side of Bluffton, recently dropped cable after installing a new antenna and is enjoying more HD stations than previously available on his living room TV. He purchased two unused converter boxes from his neighbor for next to nothing so that older sets in his house could work with the new digital signal.

The survey found that 51% of respondents felt that the DTV transition was a good thing but the remaining respondents didn't know, or were sure that it was a bad thing. Whatever the effect on individual viewing habits, the transition to digital will provide benefits to consumers.

In addition to freeing up a portion of the spectrum to improve communication between public safety officials like firefighters, police and EMTs, the switch has allowed stations to transmit several digital programs on one channel. Finally, cell phone companies are able to purchase portions of the now-free spectrum for development of high-speed mobile broadband services which may end up helping more consumers get online at lower costs.
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