Boxed thinking

Our family had a garage sale recently, providing the necessary incentive to unload a ton of junk that had accumulated around the house and in a rented warehouse. Among the items that were sold was a late '80s 26in television, which had been replaced by a late '90s HDTV-capable rear-projection television, and later by a 2004 HDTV-capable DLP-based rear-projection television.

The old 26in television had been living out its days in our daughter's bedroom. But her acquisition of a 32in LCD panel with an integrated ATSC receiver landed the old TV in prime garage sale territory.

We got $30 for a 20-year-old television that will probably still work on Feb. 17, 2009 (aka the day that analog screens will be filled with snow rather than free-to-air television programming). If the buyers are among the demographic of TV homes without a multichannel service subscription, they will need to buy an ATSC set-top box (STB). Perhaps the new owner will get a coupon from the government to help defray the cost of the new digital receiver.

One thing is certain: Even with that coupon, it will likely cost more than $30 to buy an ATSC STB to receive digital broadcasts. The coupons will entitle the bearer to $40 toward the purchase of a digital-to-analog converter.

Each household in the United States can apply for two coupons, until the subsidy authorized by Congress has been exhausted. Earlier this year, Congress authorized $890 million for these subsidies, with the potential to add $500 million if there is sufficient demand.

Empty promises?

For nearly a decade, manufacturers of consumer electronics and STBs for cable companies have assured Congress that a bare-bones ATSC STB — one designed to output an interlaced signal compatible with older televisions — would cost about $50. To date, no company offers such a box at that price.

Currently, a new ATSC STB, if you can find one, exceeds $200. Discontinued models may be found at clearance prices. Or you can buy a DTV tuner card for a PC, or a tuner that interfaces with a PC via a USB 2.0 interface. These tuners cost a bit more than $100 (PC not included).

Today's boxes are designed to output both SDTV and HDTV signals, which accounts in part for their higher price. One Gainesville, FL, retailer noted that a small number of people bought these boxes for HDTV-capable monitors. However, now that new digital televisions featuring integrated ATSC receivers are available, there is no demand. A quick survey of consumer electronics retailers in Gainesville turned up only one with an ATSC STB in stock.

Other reasons that these boxes are difficult to find are related to the hit-or-miss characteristics of ATSC reception with indoor antennas. While many of the early problems with multipath have been overcome with advanced equalizer designs, an outdoor mast-mounted antenna is still necessary at many locations. At other locations, reception may be unreliable or even impossible.

Reception issues have led several industry associations to call for minimum standards for the boxes in a subsidy program administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The NTIA issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making on July 26.

On Sept. 25, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), NAB and Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) filed joint comments in response to the rule making. The organizations recommended minimum performance requirements for eligible converter boxes, the features set for the basic converter boxes that would be eligible for the coupon program.

The organizations also recommended that functions such as electronic program guide navigation and smart antenna interfaces should not preclude converter boxes from obtaining approval under NTIA's program. (See “Web links.”)

The DTV vacuum

The legislation authorizing the digital-to-analog converter coupon program also includes $5 million for consumer education. This amount has been criticized within the broadcast industry as being insufficient.

Perhaps broadcasters deserve a bit of criticism for not promoting the DTV transition. Have you ever seen a promotional announcement in an NTSC broadcast, attempting to educate viewers about the DTV transition? How about stories during a station's newscast covering the DTV transition?

The Sinclair Broadcast Group has been airing promotional announcements under the banner of “My Free HDTV,” and has created a Web site to help other broadcasters promote the DTV transition. (See “Web links.”) The promotional announcements can be branded and used by any broadcaster.

Broadcasters have done little to develop the potential of digital broadcasting. They still rely on multichannel competitors to reach the majority of their audience. The primary new revenue stream that broadcasters have created comes from the retransmission consent agreement for their signals, delivered via the sophisticated digital STBs of their competitors.

Rather than depending on the government to help consumers' reliance on free-to-air broadcasts to deal with the DTV transition, broadcasters could use this opportunity to offer an alternative to the increasingly expensive multichannel services. The key is offering better, free STBs that would allow broadcasters to deliver a variety of new paid services alongside free broadcasts. The opportunity to deliver paid content, including movies, to local cache for on-demand consumption could easily pay for the boxes.

If broadcasters ignore this opportunity, I suspect there will be a lot of old televisions sitting on the curb on Feb. 17, 2009.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant Pcube Labs, and he hosts and moderates the OpenDTV forum.

Web links

Send questions and comments