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April 7, 2009--End of Analog TV?

As you may have read in the TV Technology News Bytes article Senate Panel Approves April 7, 2009 Analog Shutoff, we are moving closer to having a firm shut off date for analog TV. However, before the shutdown can become law, it has to be approved by the House of Representatives, which still has Dec. 31, 2008 as the shut off date in its latest plan.

The Digital Television Transition Act of 2005, which is currently in the "Committee Print" stage, changes the transition date in the Communications Act from Dec. 31, 2006 to Dec. 31, 2008. It also eliminates the requirement that 85 percent of the television households in a market have at least one television with access to digital broadcast channels before the transition can be completed. It also requires the FCC "not to adopt any further changes between July 31, 2007 and Jan. 1, 2009 to the channels assigned to full-power broadcast television stations for the provision of digital television service unless doing so is necessary for reasons of public safety or necessary to prevent a delay in the end of broadcasting by full-power stations in the analog television service."

The DTV Transition Act of 2005 includes a digital-to-analog converter box program and states that funds obtained from the auction of TV spectrum shall be used "to implement and administer a program through which households in the United States may obtain, upon request, up to two coupons that can be applied toward the purchase of digital-to-analog converter boxes, subject to the restrictions in this section and the regulations created thereunder..." The coupons would expire March 31, 2009. The value of each coupon is set at $40, and the total cost of the program cannot exceed $990,000,000.

The Act also requires manufacturers to include a warning label on any set shipped with only an analog tuner 180 days after the Act is enacted. The label must state: "This television has only an analog broadcast tuner. After Dec. 31, 2008, television broadcasters will broadcast only in digital format. You will then need to connect this television to a digital-to-analog converter box or cable or satellite service if you wish to receive broadcast programming..." The warning label adds that the TV will continue to work with VCRs, digital video recorders, DVD players and video game systems. Broadcasters will also be required to broadcast specific announcements concerning the analog TV shutdown and listing the options viewers can take to continue to receive broadcast programming, including possible eligibility for up to two coupons for the purchase of two converter boxes.

Under the DTV Transition Act of 2005, the FCC would be required to modify Part 15 of its rules to require that all TV sets sized 13 inches or larger shipped after March 1, 2007 include DTV tuners. Cable operators would be allowed to downconvert primary DTV broadcast signals to analog under some conditions until Jan. 1, 2014. See the Digital Television Transition Act of 2005 for details on this and other rules related to the shutdown of analog TV.

Last week I asked if any readers really cared if they got their DTV free off-air or through cable or satellite. I wasn't surprised that all the comments wanted free off-air TV to stay around. While most responses strongly supported off-air TV, citing the higher quality of broadcast HDTV signals compared with cable, more broadcast DTV channels than cable (multicast and adjacent market stations), the greater reliability of broadcast TV in heavy storms and natural disasters compared to DBS/cable and, of course, the much lower cost of installing an antenna and rotor compared with the monthly bill for satellite or cable reception. Some of the people responding didn't really care if they got their local DTV station off-air or by cable or satellite, but felt it was important to have free off-air DTV available as an option to keep cable and satellite prices in check. One reader said "if 'all' the broadcast channels were available via Dish Network in HDTV or DTV with all the multicast channels I am now getting, then the answer would be 'Don't care'--unless the DBS prices go up too high."

In response to my question about availability of DTV set-top boxes, most readers responding bought their boxes online and didn't bother with local retailers. A reader was pleased to see stickers on sets with DTV tuners at his local Circuit City store reminding shoppers to ask about an "HDTV antenna." Another mentioned the USDTV boxes available at Wal-Mart, which I've mentioned before. I've seen them online, but have not found one in the stores I've visited. One reader will miss his 1987 Sony Watchman, which he carries on his 3.5 hour round trip train commute. He said, "I don't use it very often, but I have it with me every day. Having seen the World Trade Center on fire on 9/11 from the train window, I never commuted again without having AM/FM/Short Wave/TV reception with me at all times--a small sacrifice of the space in my brief case, and one I intend to continue to make after the transition." If a handheld DTV isn't available by 2009, perhaps some of the nifty miniature USB 2.0 tuners we've been seeing for DVB-T will be available for ATSC, allowing easy DTV reception on a notebook computer.