FCC waives analog tuner mandate

In a ruling targeted at mobile television reception, the FCC this week approved waivers from the all-channel tuner requirement that television receivers be capable of decoding both analog and digital TV signals. The one caveat is that the wavier applies only to tuners designed exclusively for mobile applications. Fixed-location receivers are still required to be able to receive analog signals.

The waiver was granted based on requests from Dell, LG Electronics and Hauppauge Computer Works. The waiver provides evidence of the importance the FCC places on mobile DTV and their plans to end analog LPTV transmissions. Any inability to receive analog would be, at most, a temporary issue as the commission is no longer accepting applications for analog LPTV operations. The life of analog LPTV transmissions is short.

The ATSC A/53 standard was adopted by the FCC in 1996 as this nation’s official digital TV format. The mobile/handheld A/153 standard, which was adopted by the ATSC in October, 2009, is a subsection of the A/53 standard, but has never been formally adopted by the commission. Stations can provide A/53-compatiable A/153 signals for mobile viewing, but are not required to do so.

Many broadcasters view MDTV as their next business opportunity. One missing link in that path to new revenue is widely-available and inexpensive mobile DTV receivers. The petitioners claim that 40 stations are already on the air with MDTV services and that 70 stations have committed to launching MDTV services this year. The availability of MDTV receivers would help enable this new service.

Furthermore, the petitioners claim that requiring analog reception is no longer necessary for mobile-oriented DTV devices. They claim the analog mandate is burdensome and reduces the value of products because analog is facing an “imminent and irreversible elimination.” In addition, the requirement to provide analog reception and decoding places additional burdens on the devices, which increase receiver complexity and reduce battery life.

With these facts at play, the commission granted a waiver to the analog tuner mandate, but only for mobile tuners. The waiver says a device may, but is not required to, exclude analog and/or A/53 reception capabilities if it:

1) has A/153 reception capability;

2) is designed to be used in motion; and

3) provides notice on the packaging of which types of TV broadcast signals the device cannot receive.

This means that the new receivers could detect MDTV signals, but that same device might not be able to decode OTA broadcast television signals. This is an interesting caveat, but we’ll have to wait and see if the market understands the difference — or even cares.

This is an appropriate action by the FCC to support an important new broadcast service. Consumers may embrace mobile television, but only if content — and inexpensive receivers, are widely available. This action goes a long way to permitting vendors to develop solutions that embrace the MDTV model.