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Boxed In

Industries fear confusion over shutoff

WASHINGTON

As early as August 2006, consumers could first begin to see notices at retailers that new NSTC sets will not be able to stand on their own two feet, technically, after February 2009.

Last month, the Consumer Electronics Association announced that its member manufacturers had agreed upon language for warning labels to be voluntarily placed on all TV sets (and related packaging) that have only analog TV tuners, as part of a broader consumer education initiative on the DTV transition.

But like those sideview mirrors on the car that warn, "Objects are closer than they appear," the once-extended analog cutoff date may also be closer than it might seem, warns a growing number of industry and consumer groups.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS

Now at only 34 months and counting before the Great Analog Switch-off, key concerns center on the need to adequately alert the millions of homes that rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts. By the time engineers flip the switch to end analog transmissions forever on Feb.17, 2009, about two-thirds of all U.S. homes will have some type of DTV service (not including basic cable converted to analog), said Boston-based research firm Strategy Analytics. But overnight, literally, a slice of the consumer sector will go dark. Some confusion seems inevitable.

"Most who get their TV over-the-air are lower income and less sophisticated. The idea that they'll have the technical ability to hook up converter boxes is in question--even if those boxes are subsidized, so look for a huge amount of confusion," warns Josh Bernoff, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "I expect digital TVs to sell quite well over the next few years, partly because people will think their analog TVs are obsolete--despite the fact that they will continue to work just fine with cable and satellite boxes, VCRs, and DVD players."

Recent research suggests that less than a quarter of the American public is yet aware of a 2009 cutoff. Despite a congressional subsidy of $990 million earmarked for digital-to-analog converter coupons (and another $500 million for a public awareness campaign) three years out, some industry planners think it will be easy to fall behind, and warn of other pending problems.

"Time is of the essence right now," said David Donovan, president of MSTV (Association for Maximum Service Television). "We have been working hard with LG Electronics and Thomson to develop a prototype, and we've made significant progress. By this September, we hope to have a prototype to put forward for consideration."

The proposed set-top converters would work with regular over-the-air antennas.

MSTV and NAB tapped LG and Thomson last October to each develop a converter prototype to serve as a blueprint for future products. The boxes would be sold by retailers to eligible households with government-subsidized coupons worth $40 each. There will be a two-coupon limit per household, with the chits to be distributed starting no earlier than Jan. 1, 2008, and no later than March 31, 2009--less than six weeks after the analog cutoff--unless the law is later amended. (The original cutoff was scheduled for the end of 2006.) The law also stipulates that two coupons may not be used toward the purchase of a single converter box, and that all coupons would expire three months after issuance.

CEA BALKS

Although it represents a relatively small percentage of consumers, a lot of viewers will be affected. NAB and MSTV, for their part, say more than 20 million TV households (about 73 million TV sets) now rely totally on over-the-air television. The Consumer Electronics Association, meanwhile, says those numbers are far too high, and contends a growing percentage of current NTSC sets are actually used primarily for DVD movies and video games--not for over-the-air viewing.

CEA also does not recognize the MSTV/NAB push for set-top box prototypes. "These boxes [would be] far too complicated for what would be needed for simply converting analog to digital signals," said CEA spokesman Jeff Joseph. He points to the law itself which calls for a "standalone device that does not contain features or functions except those necessary to enable a consumer to convert any channel broadcast in the [DTV] service into a format that the consumer can display on television receivers..." The law would permit the inclusion of a remote control.

Congress directed the NTIA to determine what makes a household eligible for the $40 coupons, and to carry out the correlative public education program.

The agency is also in charge of defining precisely what type of D-to-A devices will qualify under the subsidy program. One consumer electronics maker noted that until those parameters are outlined, manufacturers won't crank out the boxes. He said the NTIA was expected to issue some sort of D-to-A rules by the end of March, but at presstime, an NTIA spokesman said that process could take longer.

"We are just getting ready to consider all those issues," said Ranjit DeSilva, NTIA director of public affairs. It could be longer than two weeks. Once we get everything settled and we have the rules ready to go, they will go up on the Web site."

UNLICENSED DEVICES

MSTV and other technical groups are also worried about another problem regarding over-the-air converter boxes: unlicensed out-of-band interference. Donovan said MSTV is "deeply concerned" with two pending Senate proposals (S.2332 and S.2327) that address unlicensed devices and FCC regulations.

MSTV believes there are two severe interference problems. First, out-of-band emissions, with MSTV pointing to Canadian studies using proposed American FCC parameters that show interference could occur within 78 feet of a DTV receiver (and applicable mostly to apartments and townhouses). Second, Donovan said, existing interference-sensing technology is not yet reliable.

"The key to an unlicensed model is to operate on 'so-called' vacant channels," MSTV told Congress recently in a statement. "In the real world, however, it is very likely these devices will operate on channels that are currently being used for broadcasting. Spectrum-sensing technology has never been tested in the TV band, and is not readily available in the marketplace. Perfecting such technology is years away."

MSTV is providing a video demo of the out-of-band interference problem at: www.mstv.org/static.html