TV signals go digital starting June 12

If you've got an older TV, but no cable or satellite, you'll need a converter box

Say goodbye to that snowy reception you get from your TV with the rabbit ears every time you watch "The Tonight Show." Like Jay Leno, it's history.

As of Friday, June 12, the way television programming has been delivered to American homes for more than 70 years is changing for all of us. Television watching will be all-digital, on all stations, all the time. The old, not-so-trusty analog version is toast.

For cable and satellite TV customers, the conversion to digital may hardly register. If you're still relying on an over-the-air signal and antenna, though, and have not yet obtained a digital converter box, you've got some catching up to do. It's estimated that millions of American TV viewers without the right technology could be left in the dark Friday.

TV viewing analyst Nielsen Media Research estimates that about 35,000 metro Atlanta homes aren't ready for the conversion, meaning more than 98 percent of area households are prepared. But Bernita Smith, digital television coordinator with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, which is spearheading Atlanta's efforts to go fully digital, believes the number of unprepared households is much higher.

She said the elderly, low-income and those who don't speak English are among those experiencing difficulty preparing for the switch. And there have been some unforeseen glitches, she said. Residents of one group home in Atlanta, for example, have had a hard time obtaining government-provided discount coupons for digital converter boxes because they're listed as a business, and therefore not viewed as a residential facility.

On the other hand, the switch to digital is bringing some people choices they could have only imagined. Like one elderly Korean woman in Doraville, Smith said, who was ecstatic after she got her converter box and found access to two Korean-language channels.

Ready or not, there is a lot to know about our new TV landscape. Here's a basic primer:

First, a few numbers

Key date: Friday, June 12 — digital TV conversion deadline (some stations have already begun broadcasting in digital format)

Who's affected? All U.S. television viewers

Who's ready? All but 3.1 million U.S. households (as of mid-May, according to Nielsen Media estimates)

Least prepared U.S. market: Albuquerque-Santa Fe, N.M. (8.47 percent of households rated "completely unready")

Most prepared: Providence, R.I.-New Bedford, Mass. (all households rated ready)

In metro Atlanta: 1.47 percent unprepared (about 35,000 households)

About the conversion

Why the switch? Congress called for the conversion to free up broadcast frequencies for public safety communications, such as fire and police. (Some of the freed-up frequencies also will be used for advanced commercial wireless services.) Digital, a more efficiently transmitted technology, lets TV stations provide a clearer picture and better sound as well as expanded programming possibilities.

Is your TV ready? In March 2007, virtually all new televisions sold in the U.S. had to contain a digital tuner. (Some TVs sold prior to 2007 also have digital tuners.) If you're unsure about your set, check the make and model on manufacturer Web sites, or look for labels or markings indicating a digital tuner. Terms might include "integrated digital tuner," "digital tuner built-in," "DTV," "ATSC," or "HDTV." ("Receiver" may be used instead of "tuner.")

If your TV isn't digital-ready: If you can't bear to part with your analog TV, most major electronics stores (including Radio Shack, Best Buy and Wal-Mart) have converter boxes, which cost between $40 and $80.

Get a converter coupon: The government has offered up to two $40 coupons per household toward the purchase of converter boxes. You can apply for coupons at www.dtv2009.gov. (Note: Coupons applied for now won't arrive in time for Friday's conversion.)

What will digital TV offer? Besides a sharper picture, there will be more kinds of channels available. Fans of "Magnum P.I." will be delighted with the Retro Network offered by Channel 2. Local network stations will be offering at least two channels each. There are sports channels galore, and more foreign-language channels. Doraville's large Korean population, for example, will get have access to Korean-language channels.

Need help?

Three social service agencies in metro Atlanta have been designated to help with the digital transition:

Center for Pan Asian Community Services: Aid provided in English, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and other languages on request. 3760 Park Ave., Doraville. 770-936-0969; www.cpacs.org

Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda: 100 Auburn Ave., Suite 102, Atlanta. 404-653-1199; www.gcpagenda.org

Latinos in Information Sciences and Technology Association (LISTA): Aiding the Latino community. 5935 South Norcross-Tucker Road, Norcross. 800-775-0889; www.a-lista.org

Need a converter box installed? i-Zone-3, a Federal Communications Commission-approved company, will install up to two DTV converter boxes in a home — for free — through June 30. Its installers also will adjust existing antennas, scan converter boxes to find the most digital broadcast channels available, integrate existing VCRs and provide guidance on using the converter box. Call i-Zone-3 between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily: 888-396-3041.

Got an extra coupon?

Donate a converter box coupon it to someone who needs it. Mail it to: Atlanta DTV Coupon Exchange Program, 2020 Howell Mill Rd. Suite C108, Atlanta, GA 30318.

More information

• Federal Communications Commission: 888-CALL-FCC; www.dtv.gov

• Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund: www.atlantadtv2009.com