TV or Not TV: The Accessibility of Digital Television Converter Boxes
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated that all full-power television stations in the United States stop broadcasting in analog and switch to 100% digital broadcasting at midnight on February 17, 2009. This mandate has led to a great deal of fear and confusion across the country, and in this article I try to clear up much of the confusion. The first thing that you need to know about all this is that if you have a TV connected to a cable, satellite, or other pay TV service, you have nothing to worry about, and you do not have to do anything to continue watching TV as you have been. This transition will affect only people who use antennas, such as "rabbit ears," to receive broadcast TV over the air. Also, even if you do receive broadcast TV over the air, this transition will not affect you if your TV is relatively new and has a built-in digital receiver. If you have an older TV and receive your programs over the air, then you will need to purchase a digital-to-analog converter box and connect it to your TV. Your other options are purchasing a new TV or subscribing to a cable or satellite TV system. In addition to presenting a brief discussion of the transition, this article describes a federal coupon program to assist you in purchasing the converter boxes. Finally, it includes an evaluation of the converter boxes that are available from four retail stores across the United States, as well as information of interest on other converter boxes that are eligible for the coupon program.
Why Are We Switching to Digital-Only Broadcasts?
Most major TV broadcasters are broadcasting both a digital signal and the traditional analog signal, but the analog signal takes up much more bandwidth. Digital broadcasting is an advanced format of broadcasting, using a technology for the compression of audio and video signals that allows broadcasters to transmit more programs using less bandwidth. Some data capacity can also be allocated to provide more effective closed captioning or multiple language soundtracks as well as the video description service that is of interest to many people with visual impairments. Digital broadcasting also overcomes analog problems, like snowy pictures and interference, and the transition will allow for the broadcasting of more channels and higher-definition programming. Converting to digital TV transmission frees up parts of the scarce and valuable broadcast spectrum, which can be allocated by the FCC for other important services, such as police and fire departments and emergency rescue services. It also clears up the airwaves for cellular telephone companies and other advanced wireless services.
How Do You Know If Your TV Requires a Converter Box?
If you use rabbit ears or another antenna system, rather than subscribe to a cable or satellite system, you will need to purchase a converter box only if your TV does not have a built-in digital tuner. To find out whether your TV has a built-in digital tuner, consult your owner's manual. In the likely event that your manual is not accessible or you cannot find your manual, you may be able to find this information from your TV manufacturer's web site or by phoning the manufacturer. You can also examine the connections on your TV set to see if it has a digital tuner. If your TV has an input connection labeled "digital input" or "ATSC," it has a built-in digital tuner, and you will not need a converter box. By the way, ATSC is the acronym for the new digital format, and it stands for Advanced Television Systems Committee.
The Coupon Program
If you have determined that you do need a converter box, then you can get a $40 coupon from the U.S. government to defray the cost of your box. The prices of these converter boxes range from $45 to $60, so the coupon will cover most of the cost of the box. To learn more about the program and to apply for a coupon, visit www.dtv2009.gov. You can apply directly online or download an application, fill it out, and mail it in. You can also telephone the coupon program's 24-hour hotline at (888) DTV-2009 (388-2009) to apply for a coupon. Each household is eligible for 2 coupons, but it may take some time to get your coupon, up to a month or more. The coupons expire 90 days after they are shipped, and you have until March 31, 2009, to order them. The coupons are plastic cards that look like credit cards or gift cards, so that may help you identify them when they come in the mail.
Where Do You Purchase the Converter Boxes?
The converter boxes can be purchased online or in some retail stores. The web site www.dtv2009.gov lists the coupon-eligible converter boxes that are available online and at retail stores, and the list is occasionally updated with more boxes. Currently, it lists about 66 boxes that are available online or in stores. The national retail stores that now have boxes for sale are Best Buy, Circuit City, Kmart, Radio Shack, Sears, Target, and Wal-Mart. If you decide to shop at a retail store, you should call ahead on the day that you plan to shop to make sure that the store has the converter box in stock because I have found that the stores are sometimes out of stock. The web site does not list the online retailers, but if you find a box at the site that you want, you should be able to find the retailer by searching for the box on Google.
The Converter Box Evaluations
Caption: AFB TECH evaluators testing a converter box.
When we at AFB TECH began this project, one converter box was available from each of four national retail stores: Best Buy, Circuit City, Radio Shack, and Wal-Mart. We purchased the box that was available at each store and examined them all for accessibility for people with visual impairments. Since then, converter boxes have become available from online sources and from the other three national retail stores listed earlier: Kmart, Sears, and Target. Because of the similarity in the boxes, we did not purchase any more of these boxes to evaluate. However, I later provide additional information on several other boxes. I now discuss the results of our evaluation of the four boxes that we brought to the AFB TECH lab: the Digital Stream DTX 9900 from Radio Shack, the Insignia NS-DXA1 from Best Buy, the Magnavox TB100MW9 from Wal-Mart, and the Zenith DTT900 from Circuit City. I focus on the following areas of interest:
- Physical layout of the boxes
- Initial setup process
- Access to the menu system
- Pass-through of video description
- Tactile nature of the remote control
- Compatibility with "smart antennas"
- Accessibility of documentation
I follow up that discussion with a list of all the coupon-eligible converter boxes that have certain features that may be of interest to AccessWorld readers, such as the ability to pass through video description.
Physical Layout of the Boxes
The physical layout of all the boxes is similar. All are small, rectangular boxes that are a bit larger than a VHS videotape. The Digital Stream is the smallest, weighing 14.4 ounces, and the Magnavox is the largest, weighing 2.4 pounds. The Insignia and Zenith both weigh 1.7 pounds, and they are actually the exact same box with different names or brands. The Digital Stream has three small buttons on the bottom right corner of the top panel. There is a round Power button on the right and two smaller buttons to the left for changing channels. The Power button is flush with the panel, and the channel buttons are slightly inset, so it is not perfect from a tactile standpoint, but it should not be a problem for most people who are visually impaired. The Insignia/Zenith has the same buttons, but they are on the front panel instead, protrude a bit, and are more tactilely identifiable. The Magnavox has only one button, a rocker-style button for Power On/Off, and no channel buttons. It should be noted that all these boxes come with remote controls, so you will rarely use the buttons.
Caption: The four digital converter boxes--Digital Stream, Insignia, Zenith and Magnavox.
All these converter boxes have the same ports along the back panel. There is a standard coaxial input connection where the cable from your antenna inputs and another coaxial cable connection for the cable that goes to your TV. There are also three jacks for connecting the converter box to your TV if you want to use a standard RCA cable instead of coaxial cables. You can supposedly get a better picture using an RCA connection, but we found no difference while testing. The power cord is also connected on the back panel of these boxes.
The boxes have display screens, but not much is displayed. The Digital Stream, Insignia, and Zenith displays have one LED (light emitting diode) light that is green when the box's power is on and red when it is off. They also have another light to indicate the signal strength, but we never saw it come on while testing. The Magnavox display has only one light, which is green when the box is on and yellow when it is off. The boxes do not display your current channel number. That number is displayed only on the TV screen.
Initial Setup Process
With all the converter boxes, the physical setup can be accomplished using nonvisual, tactile techniques and can be done independently. Although the manual does not describe this process for a person who is visually impaired, all you really need to know is that you plug it in and then connect your antenna to one coaxial connection and your TV to the other.
The last step in the initial setup process is inaccessible with all the boxes. You use the remote control to complete several onscreen setup procedures, but it relies on interacting with information that is displayed on your TV screen that is not supported by speech output. You will have to rely on assistance from a sighted person for this setup, but at least it is a onetime-only process.
Access to the Menu System
None of the four boxes that we brought into the AFB TECH lab has any speech-output functionality to provide access to the menu system or the features accessed via the menus. In fact, none of the converter boxes that is available anywhere has this ability. This is an obvious accessibility barrier, but luckily, other than for the initial setup process, you do not have to use the menus much. Most people will simply use their remote control to change channels, and the box just does what it is supposed to do--convert the digital signal to analog. However, you will be missing out on some features that you paid for when you purchased the box. Some of these features include
- Turning on closed captioning and adjusting the size of the captions.
- Setting parental controls to block offensive or inappropriate content.
- Setting the sleep timer.
- Choosing how to have emergency information displayed.
Pass-Through of Video Description
The video description that depicts the action and visual scenery of some broadcast programs is successfully passed through with all four boxes that we assessed. In addition, the Insignia, Zenith, and Magnavox remote controls all have dedicated buttons to access the video description. The Digital Stream that we purchased from Radio Shack did not have the remote control that was supposed to come with it, so we cannot report whether its remote has a dedicated button for video description. However, we used a universal remote that we had in the lab, and it worked to pass through the video description.
If you are watching a show with video description, you just press the button that says "audio" or "SAP," and the TV should begin speaking the descriptions. You can contact your local television stations to see if they are transmitting video descriptions and if so, for which programs. Many programs broadcast on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), and a handful of programs on commercial channels, do have video description. We found a couple of Web resources for finding PBS shows that are described. One resource is on the web site of the Metropolitan Washington Ear, an organization that provides services for blind, visually impaired, and other people who cannot effectively read print. They list all the programs with video description from PBS and commercial channels at www.washear.org/dailylogs.htm. These listings are for the Washington, DC, area, so the channels and times might be off by a bit, but you can find the described shows in your local listings and you will know when and where they are on. You can also use the National Federation of the Blind's Newsline system over the phone to find your local listings. Call 888-882-1629 to learn more about Newsline. Yahoo TV is another resource for finding shows with video description, and you can find it at http://tv.yahoo.com. Select TV Listings, and you can set up the page to show the listings for channels in your local area. Shows with video description have the letters DVS after them, so you can do a search for the letters "DVS" to find described shows.
It is important to note that not all the converter boxes that are eligible for the coupon program will pass through the descriptive video, and not all have a dedicated button on the remote. Later, I provide a list of all the ones that do pass through the video description and have a dedicated button on the remote.
Tactile Nature of Remote Control
The Insignia and Zenith remote controls have buttons and a layout that are well designed and provide for tactile use. The remote controls that came with these boxes are the same as the universal remote that we have in the AFB TECH lab, and they use differently shaped buttons that are arranged by function, with a nib on the 5 key of the number grid and two nibs on the Power button. The Magnavox remote control is not as well designed. Although the buttons are tactile enough, they do not vary in size and shape and are not arranged by function. The Magnavox remote control also has no nibs on any buttons and no Volume buttons, so you will need another remote to control your TV's volume. However, if you have a universal remote that you like, you can use it with any of these boxes. In fact, finding a universal remote that you prefer may be the best strategy if the box you choose does not have a remote control that you like.
Compatibility with "Smart Antennas"
A "smart antenna" automatically senses its best position for picking up a broadcast station's signal and automatically adjusts its position when you change the channel. Depending on where you live, you may or may not have to adjust your antenna when you change channels, so you may not need a smart antenna. This is not so much an accessibility issue as it is a convenience issue, but nobody wants to have to get up and adjust the antenna every time they change a channel. It is also important if you or someone in your home has a mobility-related disability. None of the four boxes that we examined is compatible with smart antennas, but I later list the boxes that are compatible.
Accessibility of Documentation
All the boxes that we evaluated come with print manuals that will not accommodate a person with low vision. They all have 8- to 12-point fonts and small visual diagrams of some features and functions that may not even accommodate a person with typical vision. We also searched online and found electronic manuals for all the boxes in PDF format. The Zenith PDF manual that we found is an image-only file and is of no use to a person who is visually impaired. The others have the familiar untagged graphics problems that are often found with manuals in PDF format. Although you can get some useful information from them, you will still need help from a sighted person to get at much of the information.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is the governmental entity that was charged with implementing much of this digital-to-analog transition. NTIA set the standards that the industry was to follow when building the converter boxes and some features that are required and some that are simply allowed but not required. You can read about NTIA's rules and procedures at www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/frnotices/2007/DTVFinalRule_2e.htm.
Unfortunately, NTIA did not consider people with visual impairments when it created its standards. Passing-through video description is allowed but not required. Remote controls are allowed but not required, and nothing was said about a dedicated button on the remote controls for video description. Accessible menus and accessible on-screen programming are not mentioned as being allowed and are not available on any converter box. The American Council of the Blind's (ACB) Braille Forum reported that ACB has been a strong and dissatisfied voice with regard to access provisions for people who are blind in this entire process and that ACB has continually appealed to the NTIA, but the NTIA has not responded satisfactorily. The Braille Forum stated that if you are unsatisfied, you can contact Tony Wilhelm at NTIA, who is responsible for the Coupon Converter Box Program. You can telephone Wilhelm at 202-482-6260 or e-mail him at email@example.com.
The TV-band radios that many people have that can receive the audio portion of TV broadcasts will also be affected by this digital transition. Although we did not investigate these radios, it is reasonable to assume that most, if not all, of them will no longer receive TV broadcasts after the transition. I have a CCRadio Plus, and it will no longer receive TV broadcasts after the transition. Radios in general will eventually switch over to digital in the future, but this transition has been moving much more slowly in the United States than in Canada and Europe.
The Bottom Line
These converter boxes were not designed the way we would have preferred them to be, and some features are not accessible at all. However, they can be used effectively after some initial assistance from a sighted person with the setup process. That being said, it is obvious that NTIA did not consider people with visual impairments when it set the standards for these boxes and really does not get it when it comes to accessibility for people who are blind or have low vision. It would have been helpful if NTIA had required all the boxes to be able to pass through the SAP channel and to be compatible with smart antennas. NTIA could have also at least allowed for a manufacturer to provide a speech-output function for accessing the menu system, but that was not even on its radar screen. Accessible manuals would also be helpful. This has been a government-led program from the outset, but questions remain on how much the program complies with existing regulations for accessibility and usability.
Additional Information on Specific Boxes
In addition to the converter boxes that we examined in the AFB TECH lab, we also gathered information from several sources about coupon-eligible boxes with specific features that may be of interest to AccessWorld readers.
First, here is a list of coupon-eligible converter boxes that pass through video description via the secondary audio programming feature and have a dedicated button on the remote control for accessing that feature directly:
While all U.S. full-power TV stations will be discontinuing analog service on or before February 17, 2009, you may still be able to receive some analog TV after this date. Channels in Canada and Mexico will not transition to digital broadcasting on February 17. In addition, most low-power, "Class A," and translator stations in the United States will continue to broadcast analog signals. A low-power station may be a local school, business, or church station. Class A stations are similar to low-power stations, but have other regulations. A translator station rebroadcasts the full-power stations, typically to serve rural communities that are too far away from the full-power stations. A converter box with analog pass-through capability allows broadcast signals to pass through the converter box to be tuned by your analog TV without the need to use an A/B switch or a signal splitter and an extra cable to route the analog signals around the converter box. Here are the 12 coupon-eligible boxes that can pass through analog signals:
Here is a list of all 10 coupon-eligible converter boxes with smart antenna compatibility:
- Homecast Access HD DTA1010D
S-Video is another feature that may be of interest to some of our readers. S-Video is another way to connect your converter box to your TV that is supposed to provide for a better picture. Here are 8 coupon-eligible boxes with S-Video connections:
None of the boxes is listed in all four categories, but the Channel Master CM-7000 is listed in all categories except for analog pass through. So, if you get that box and want to access available analog broadcasts as well, you can use an A/B switch or a signal splitter and an extra cable to route the analog signals around the converter box.
Two federal web sites have information on the digital transition: www.dtv2009.gov and www.dtv.gov.
The telephone number for information on the converter box coupon program is 888-DTV-2009 or 888-388-2009.
For more information or questions pertaining to the DTV transition, you can e-mail DTVinfo@fcc.gov.
You can read the NTIA rules and procedures at www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/frnotices/2007/DTVFinalRule_2e.htm.
The FCC has published the following web page with information on 32 boxes that it has tested regarding features that may be of interest to people with disabilities: www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/converterboxfeatures.html.
Some of the information that was presented here was taken from that page, but you may want to visit the web page for updated information. And the web page has information on closed captioning and remote controls that we did not include here.
Insignia Digital-to-Analog Converter for Analog TVs.
Manufacturer: Insignia Products, 7601 Penn Avenue South, Richfield, MN 55423-3645; phone: 877-467-4289; web site: www.insignia-products.com.
U.S. Sales Outlets: Best Buy, Corporate Customer Care, P.O. Box 9312, Minneapolis, MN 55440; phone: 888-237-8289; web site: www.bestbuy.com.
DTV Digital to Analog Converter TB100MW9.
Manufacturer: Magnavox; phone: 800-605-8610; web site: www.magnavox.com.
U.S. Sales Outlets: Wal-Mart Stores, 702 SW 8th Street, Bentonville, AR 72716-8611; phone: 479-273-4000; web site: www.walmart.com.
Digital Stream Digital to Analog Converter Box DTX9900.
Manufacturer: Digital Stream, 7th floor, Insung B/D, 344 Gwangjang-dong Gwangjin-gu, Seoul 143-210, Korea; phone: 866-706-4367; web site: www.dstreamtech.com.
U.S. Sales Outlets: RadioShack Corporation, 300 RadioShack Circle, Fort Worth, TX 76102-1964; phone: 817-415-3700; web site: www.RadioShack.com.
Zenith Digital TV Tuner DTT900.
Manufacturer: Zenith Electronics, 2000 Millbrook Drive, Lincolnshire, IL 60069; phone: 877-9ZENITH; web site: www.zenith.com.
U.S. Sales Outlets: Circuit City Stores, 9950 Mayland Drive, Richmond, VA 23233; phone: 888-244-6594; web site: www.circuitcity.com.
Go to the web site www.dtv2009.gov or telephone 888-DTV-2009 (888-388-2009) for more information about the digital-to-analog transition and for a list of all the coupon-eligible converter boxes.
Acknowledgements: We thank Marshall University interns Morgan Blubaugh and Charles W. Clements and Elon University intern Adam Vanhorn for their assistance in completing this article. We also thank Larry Goldberg and the National Center for Accessible Media, at WGBH in Boston, and Marlaina Lieberg, of the American Council of the Blind, for the information they provided.
This Product Evaluation was funded by the Teubert foundation, Huntington, WV.
If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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