Final ThoughtAre We Pregnant?

Extraordinary things can happen in nine months. A fertilized egg can become a human being. And a metropolitan area can go from the start of digital terrestrial television (DTT) broadcasts to analog shutdown.

The area that proved it is Berlin-Brandenburg, in Germany, with some two million television households. Not all two million currently watch DTT.

When their transition began in November 2002, only about 150,000 homes were estimated not to be using cable or satellite for television reception. Four months later, analog commercial broadcasts ceased. Last month, so did analog public broadcasts. More than 170,000 DTT set-top receivers were sold, at prices starting at about $100 each.

It's already more than five years too late for the U.S. DTT transition to take just nine months. In Berlin, the local media authority coordinated the transition, providing what was effectively a free cable TV-like service. And Berlin DTT receivers were inexpensive in part because they didn't have to deal with HDTV.

The U.S. has neither advantage. Each broadcaster makes its own programming decisions, and our receivers have to be able to decode HDTV signals, even if the pictures are to be displayed on a standard definition screen. But our DTT transition could be jolted nine months from now.

An FCC mandate requires devices with analog TV reception to add digital reception starting July 1, 2004. The digital addition is phased in. Nine months from now, TV sets with screens 36 inches and larger are affected. The following year, it's those 25 inches and up. And, as of July 1, 2007, all TVs 13 inches and larger -- as well as other products with analog tuners, such as VCRs -- must have DTT-reception capability.

The mandate is being challenged in court. A quick peek at newspaper ads explains why.

On Sunday, August 9, the Ultimate Electronics retail chain advertised a Sharp 36-inch TV for $498.95. The lowest-priced U.S. DTT-receiving product listed in the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) Summer HDTV Guide is a computer card selling for $199.

Computer cards have neither cases nor power supplies, so they approximate the circuitry that would need to be added to a TV for DTT reception. One-hundred-ninety-nine dollars added to $499 next July would be a 40% price increase.

Perhaps the cost will be halved by the following year when the second phase of the mandate kicks in. On August 9, Best Buy advertised an RCA 25-inch TV for $179.99, and Circuit City had an Apex 27-inch TV for $189.99. Add $100-worth of DTT reception to either, and the price increases by more than half.

With the third phase of the mandate delayed until July 1, 2007, perhaps the retail cost of DTT reception will drop to $25 (with intellectual property fees alone estimated to be $16, the price won't fall to pennies). Circuit City advertised a 13-inch TV on August 9 for $64.99 and a 13-inch TV/VCR combo for $109.99.

The price of the former would rise by close to 40% if $25 were added. The latter contains two analog tuners (so do picture-in-picture TVs). If dual $25 DTT reception is mandated, the price would rise by more than 45%.

If the legal challenge to the FCC mandate is successful, U.S. viewers will continue to be able to buy inexpensive TV sets, and our DTT transition will continue creeping along. CEA has reported a cumulative 701,512 DTT receivers (both standalone and integrated into TVs) sold to U.S. dealers through June 30 of this year. Even if all were bought by consumers (they weren't), that would still be considerably fewer than 1% of U.S. television households -- perhaps just a quarter of a percent of U.S. TV sets (never mind VCRs).

If the legal challenge fails, manufacturers may still preserve inexpensive TVs by removing their analog tuners. Digital cable and satellite boxes have direct audio and video connections; tuners are superfluous. The FCC reported about 86% of U.S. households on cable or satellite by mid-2001.

If the legal challenge fails and manufacturers don't remove tuners, then the number of U.S. DTT receivers will skyrocket starting next July. We'll know for sure in nine months.

Mark Schubin is an engineering consultant with a diverse range of clients, from the Metropolitan Opera to Sesame Workshop.