Final ThoughtWedding Reception

On August 8, the FCC ordered all new devices with TV tuners to include "DTV reception capability" by certain dates on a phased-in schedule. The move has been hailed as guaranteeing the success of digital terrestrial television broadcasting in the U.S. Does it?

Consider a hypothetical move by the still-hypothetical Department of Homeland Security. It could order all automobiles to have "anti-terrorism shielding" by certain dates. What is "anti-terrorism shielding"? The term could cover a broad range of meanings. It could be as simple as window-screening material over air vents so disease carrying insects can't enter. Or it could be as complex as the anti-attack shielding on the President's limousine.

If the department doesn't specify what "anti-terrorism shielding" is, some manufacturers might offer the President's limousine treatment (at a very high price), and some might offer screened vents (at a relatively low price). If there are no standards, not only are both options possible, but terrorist-delivered malarial mosquitoes and plague-carrying fleas could also slip through poorly installed or overly coarse screening.

Like that hypothetical edict, the FCC's "DTV tuner" order specifically excludes any minimum performance characteristics for DTV reception. According to an official FCC news release, "competitive forces are the best approach for ensuring that DTV receivers perform adequately and meet consumer needs in terms of price, quality, performance, and features."

At this year's NAB convention, Linx Electronics introduced Casper, perhaps the best form of DTV reception yet. Some set makers could decide to include Casper in what they add to their TV sets under the FCC mandate. There would be the cost of the circuitry, of course, plus a fee to Linx for its intellectual property (IP) and fees to such other IP owners as Zenith. That would be the "President's limousine" option, one that could add dramatically to the cost of a small TV set or $50 VCR.

The "screened vents" DTV-reception option would have the cheapest circuitry (with the lowest IP fees). Nothing in the FCC order prevents that, even if the cheapest circuitry can't deliver DTV at most sites.

If a purchaser of a 60-inch HDTV set finds it cannot receive HDTV broadcasts, the FCC's "competitive forces" could come into play. But, if a consumer replaces one 25-inch TV connected to a cable system with another, and the second's "DTV tuner" cannot receive digital broadcasts at that site, the problem could remain hidden until some future date. And that's not all; the FCC order offers manufacturers an even lower cost, IP-free solution. It would be silly for the hypothetical Department of Homeland Security order to apply only to vehicles with cup holders. But if it did, auto makers could simply remove cup holders instead of adding shielding.

The FCC order applies only to television displays and recorders that include analog tuners. Unlike cup holders, such tuners were, until recently, critical. Even those with cable TV set-top converters still needed to feed the RF output somewhere. But that's not true anymore.

Virtually all recent cable boxes, satellite receivers, VCRs, and DVD players include direct audio and video outputs, and virtually all recent TV sets, VCRs, and DVD recorders include matching inputs. And, according to the FCC, as of June 2001 (its most recent report), 86.42% of television households subscribed to cable, DBS, or some other multichannel video programming distributor÷an increase of 4.6% from the previous year.

So, to avoid raising TV set costs by adding "DTV tuners," manufacturers could actually lower them by removing analog tuners. Viewers connecting their monitors to cable boxes, satellite receivers, VCRs, and/or DVD players with AV connections would lose no functionality.

Viewers without cable or satellite who needed new TVs would have to pay extra for the analog tuners and digital demodulator/decoders. If they represented just a small fraction of the market, those prices would likely be higher still. Some viewers might decide the cost of a cable or satellite connection is offset by the lower cost of a tuner-free TV monitor. As the percentage of TVs not needing any tuner approaches 100, what happens to over-the-air broadcasting?

Remember home ice and coal delivery?

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