09.16.2005 12:00 AM
Converter Prototypes Demonstrated on Capitol Hill
There it was, a 25-year-old tabletop Zenith looking every bit its vintage, hooked up to a Silver Sensor sitting in the window of the Rayburn House Office Building. One minute, the picture was hazy and speckled; the next, clean as a pin, thanks to a handy-dandy little box for which Congress may drop as much as $1 billion.

The box contained the digital-to-analog conversion technology necessary for analog-only TV sets to continue working once analog broadcast signals are shut off. There is no such item on the market now, but electronics manufacturers say they can turn them out by the millions and sell them for around $50 apiece within a couple years, when Congress intends to end analog broadcasting.

Four companies-- LG, parent company of Zenith, chipmaker Zoran, Motorola and Thomson-- were on Capitol Hill Thursday morning demonstrating prototype D-to-A technology. All were hooked up to small indoor antennas, and all had side-by-side screens of analog and digital reception, including multicast channels. All the technologies appeared to work with similar efficacy.

It should be noted that the demonstration, like previous DTV dog-and-ponies at the Rayburn, was held in a room where the windows face a courtyard walled on all sides--a veritable petri dish for creating multipath interference. Some interference in the form of snow was evident in the analog signals, but it wasn't enough to cause the digital signals to drop during nearly an hour of observation. The weather was dry and partly cloudy, and while companies making DTV reception technology claim rain does not cause interference, it can exacerbate multipath in urban environments.

Using a standalone set-top that's not available on the market, LG employed the fifth-generation reception technology that overcame multipath interference at DTV test site NYC300, where previous generations failed. (Although there have been subsequent indications that front end tuner design also contributed to the success of the fifth-generation technology at the Manhattan apartment where digital reception is notoriously bad due to multipath.)

LG was also showing a nonworking prototype of its finished product, a 6.5-by-1.5-by-4.3 inch box weighing less than 2 pounds. It will also use the next generation of LG DTV reception technology, known as 5G-plus, a spokesman said. The LG D-to-A converter could retail for $50 in '08, the company says, "assuming millions of units" are ordered. One representative of a major electronics retailer said orders will indeed be placed for converters once a hard analog shut-off date is set by Congress.

There is every expectation that Congress will set that date before the current session ends. A bill in the Senate and a draft in the House mandate the end of 2008 for the shutdown, a timetable even the National Association of Broadcasters accept. What remains to be hammered out on the House side involves the details of a subsidy program. Commerce committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) previously opposed a subsidy program, but sources on Capitol Hill said he's "agreed to some form" of it in order to get Democrats to support a hard date. Just how much to spend on it and who will qualify is still up in the air. The Senate bill, introduced earlier this year by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) earmarks $463 million for 9.3 million households that do not exceed twice the poverty level according to estimates from the General Accountability Office. The members of the House Commerce Committee are said to be wrangling for a number between $500,000 and $1 billion. The schism will have to be settled before the last week of October, when the Budget Committee intends to mark up a reconciliation bill.


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