A set-top box (STB) or set-top unit (STU) is a device that connects to a television and an external source of signal, turning the signal into content which is then displayed on the television screen.
Before the mid-1950s all British television sets tuned only VHF Band I channels. Since all 5 Band I channels were occupied by BBC transmissions, ITV would have to use Band III. This meant all the TV sets in the country would require Band III converters which converted the Band III signal to a Band I signal. By 1955, when the first ITV stations started transmitting, virtually all new British Televisions had 13-channel tuners, quickly making Band III converters obsolete.
Before the All-Channel Receiver Act of 1962 required US television receivers to be able to tune the entire VHF and UHF range (which in North America was NTSC-M channels 2 through 83 on 54 to 890 MHz), a set-top box known as a UHF converter would be installed at the receiver to shift a portion of the UHF-TV spectrum onto low-VHF channels for viewing. As some 1960s-era twelve-channel TV sets remained in use for many years, and Canada and Mexico were slower than the US to require UHF tuners to be factory-installed in new TV's, a market for these converters continued to exist for much of the 1970s.
Cable television represented a possible alternative to deployment of UHF converters as broadcasts could be frequency-shifted to VHF channels at the cable head-end instead of the final viewing location. Unfortunately, cable brought a new problem; most cable systems could not accommodate the full 54-890 MHz VHF/UHF frequency range and the twelve channels of VHF space were quickly exhausted on most systems. Adding any additional channels therefore needed to be done by inserting the extra signals into cable systems on non-standard frequencies, typically either below VHF channel 7 (midband) or directly above VHF channel 13 (superband).
These frequencies corresponded to non-television services (such as two-way radio) over-the-air and were therefore not on standard TV receivers. Before cable-ready TV sets became common in the late 1980s, a set-top box known as a cable converter box was needed to receive the additional analog cable TV channels and convert them to frequencies that could be seen on a regular TV. These boxes often provided a wired or wireless remote control which could be used to shift one selected channel to a low-VHF frequency (most often channels 3 or 4) for viewing. Block conversion of the entire affected frequency band onto UHF, while less common, was used by some models to provide full VCR compatibility and the ability to drive multiple TV sets, albeit with a somewhat non-standard channel numbering scheme.
Newer television receivers greatly reduced the need for external set-top boxes, although cable converter boxes continue to be used to descramble premium cable channels and to receive digital cable channels, along with using interactive services like video on demand, pay per view, and home shopping through television. Satellite and microwave-based services also require specific external receiver hardware, so the use of set-top boxes of various formats never completely disappeared.