Shortly, the way Americans watch TV will fundamentally change and I want South Texans to be aware - and prepared.

In accordance with the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005, all television broadcasting will soon change from "analog" to "digital" standard. What that means for TV watchers is that if you currently use an antenna to get a TV signal, you will be profoundly affected by the changeover in February 2009.

The conversion to digital television should provide improved image quality, a greater variety of programming and - by clearing up a portion of the broadcast spectrum- it should enhance communications capabilities among policemen, firemen and other emergency response workers in the event of an emergency.

The transition to digital broadcasting will take effect on Feb. 17, 2009, and - again - will affect only consumers who do not subscribe to cable and who own television sets equipped with analog tuners (sets with "rabbit ear" antennas).

Affected consumers will have three options in order to continue getting television broadcasting after the Feb. 17 transition to DTV:

* Purchase a new television set equipped with a digital tuner (if you are buying a new TV, be certain you get one that is DTV-enabled; this is very important, otherwise you will still be in the same boat);

* Subscribe to a cable or satellite service provider;

* Purchase a DTV converter box (a one-time cost) in order to continue to receive digital broadcasts with current analog television set and without a cable subscription. This will be the least expensive option for TV watchers not prepared for the conversion.

To minimize the expense of purchasing a DTV converter box, a Converter Box Coupon Program will provide households with up to two $40 coupons for the purchase of up to two digital-to-analog converter boxes. This program will probably be limited, so I encourage South Texans to find the best solution for them and to be in line first for coupons to help with the cost of a converter box.

For more information on applying for converter box coupons from Jan. 1, 2008 through March 31, 2009, see the information from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration or call toll-free (888) 388-2009.

The coupons are to be valid for 90 days and can be used toward the purchase of any approved converter. More information about the Converter Box Coupon Program will develop over the next few months.

I will continue to provide TV consumers in South Texas with updated information about the coupon program through my Web site and e-newsletters. Please feel free to share this information with friends, family, co-workers, church members, and others who may find it useful.

U.S. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi, represents South Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives. Readers may contact him at (202) 225-7742.