JAMES ISLAND — On Feb. 17, broadcasters will switch off analog television, the airwaves that have carried shows since the late 1930s. Because of a law passed in 1996, all TV channels will become digital on that date, which will mean a crisper picture.

"It's going to be better, more enjoyable TV," said Commissioner Michael Copps of the Federal Communications Commission. Copps spoke to an audience of about 30 people Thursday at the Lowcountry Senior Center.

In South Carolina, an estimated 230,000 people rely on analog TV. Without a converter box that transforms the TV signal from analog to digital, those people will lose their broadcast television. Those with a newer TV set, cable or satellite TV will be unaffected, Copps said.

A converter box is available at electronics stores for $40 to $70. The government has a program that provides two coupons per household worth $40 each that can be applied to the purchase of a converter box at a list of designated stores, Copps said.

Information on how to apply for converter box coupons is available at dtv2009.gov or at 888-DTV-2009. Coupons should arrive about three weeks after the application is sent, he said.

Copps advised that those with an analog TV go ahead and purchase a converter box because there will probably be a last-minute run on the boxes before the transition deadline. By law, U.S. retailers had to stop selling analog televisions by March 1 last year. Digital-ready sets are marked DTV, ATSC or HDTV.

Most of the freed-up electromagnetic spectrum is being auctioned off by the FCC, mainly to cell phone companies and broadband providers. The agency has raised almost $20 billion to date. The remainder of the newly opened analog spectrum will be doled out to police, fire and paramedic services.