For a few months now, several readers have asked whether they would need the new digital television converter boxes if they have cable.
The basic answer is a cable TV hookup serves as the only tool you will need when all television stations begin broadcasting only with digital signals in February 2009, the providers promise.
Consumers who purchase a digital television — virtually the only ones retailers now offer — also will not need converters.
So who will need it?
Anyone using an old analog TV with an antenna (rabbit ears or outdoor version on the roof.)
That appears to be quite a few people, as the federal government has received about 10.5-million requests for free $40 coupons — roughly half of what is available. About 5.6-million requests have been accepted so far, and folks have been receiving the coupons in mailboxes over the past few weeks.
The coupons, which look like a government-issued gift card, give you a discount of $40 off a digital converter box, which can run from $39.99 to $80 depending upon the brand and options.
With the coupon, the government includes a list of eligible converter boxes and eight stores near your house that carry them. If you can find them.
On a recent visit to a local Wal-Mart, all the boxes had been sold, highlighting one of the drawbacks of the coupon program: the coupons come with a 90-day expiration.
In an April 8 letter, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, urged the federal government to rescind the expiration date because the non-profit argued it was too onerous on consumers waiting for boxes to arrive in stores.
"We are expecting more converter boxes on the market in a few months, which might be too late for consumers who requested their coupons early," Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, said in the letter.
Congress wrote the expiration date into law and there is no indication that it will change.
Bart Forbes, a spokesman for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said no changes have been made regarding the expiration date. Those who objected to the expiration date should have said so during hearings about the legislation in 2006, he said.
"Folks who wanted to comment on the legislation did so a couple of years ago," Forbes said.
(Who was actually thinking about converting their analog TV signal to a digital one then?)
Anyway, connecting this gadget is simple, like hooking up a DVD player or similar device.
There might be some on-screen programming involved such as with the Zenith DTT900 model we tested, an 8 x 6 inch black box that was one of three reviewed by Consumer Reports.
In addition to the Zenith model ($60 at Circuit City), Consumer Reports looked at the Magnavox TB100MW9 ($50 at Wal-mart); and the Insignia NS-DXA1 ($60 at Best Buy). The Zenith model was picked the favorite for image and picture quality.
Over the next few months, more models are expected to hit the market.
But if you want the coupon discount, timing will be everything. You don't want the coupons to run out before you request one or expire before you use it.
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.