Boxes Hit the Streets

The first coupon-eligible converter boxes hit stores in February, and word of the transition seems to have gotten out to the public.

But as some in Congress are starting to realize, viewers who receive DTV education still might not receive the DTV signals.

At a hearing on DTV before the House Telecommunications Subcommittee Feb. 13—the fourth such hearing by the panel during the 110th Congress—Chairman Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) pointed to that digital elephant in the room.

“Because the signal characteristics of digital transmission and the anticipated geographic coverage area for individual broadcasters are different than for analog television, many consumers may not receive the digital version of channels they currently receive after the switch,” he said. “It is important to know how many such households will be affected by this and the extent to which households may need to adjust, or acquire, antennas to receive digital signals.”

At least one committee member complained that the panel had figured for years that the only consumer hardware needed for the transition was the subsidized box. Now, they were being told, viewers might need to install new and better antennas to get channels they’ve received for decades. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) wondered if another consumer subsidy program was in order.

How many viewers will lose their picture next year? FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin downplayed the concern, initially responding to Markey that folks who would be unable to pick up a digital signal were out of the expected coverage area of the analog channels and, in effect, shouldn’t have been getting reception in the first place.

That wasn’t good enough for Markey, who pressed further; Martin said the FCC estimated that 5 percent of over-the-air viewers fell into this category and would likely need antenna upgrades to get their DTV.


That number is not known for certain. “General rule: If you get analog today, you will get digital tomorrow using the same type of antenna,” said David Donovan, president and chief executive officer of the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV).

But he warned that in some cases, the contours given to full-service stations are smaller than the contours they had in analog. Some people living about 40 to 50 miles away from transmitters may have to get an antenna with a stronger gain, he said.

The Consumer Electronics Association also didn’t suggest a specific number of viewers who would have trouble getting the signals, but acknowledged that some might.

“We believe broadcasters will certainly maximize their coverage as they take down their analog facilities and make adjustments during the transition,” said a CEA spokeswoman. “Receiving equipment is getting better all the time, especially with respect to multipath interference. It is inevitable that there will be differences in reception capability as we replace the broadcast TV system that has been in place for decades; however, some of the current projections seem overly pessimistic.”

In all, CEA estimates that 11 percent of the nation, or 13 million households, rely on over-the-air TV exclusively. NAB puts that figure at 17 percent of the nation, or 19.6 million households.

Anticipating another complication—even for the well-educated over-the-air viewer—Washington is paying fresh attention to the situation of low-power, Class A and translator stations, most of which will remain analog through February 2009.

Martin gave yet another unwelcome gift in February to the cable industry with a proposal for carriage of low-power stations. He also proposed that full-power broadcasters help out low-power broadcasters by lending them some of their digital spectrum—with appropriate compensation.

NAB announced the formation of a committee that will seek low-power data and answers. NAB also urged box makers to add analog pass-through switches to their coupon-eligible converter boxes, which would allow viewers to receive both digital and analog signals.

Meredith Attwell Baker, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, told the panel that the certification process had begun for a new round of boxes with the feature.

In her first appearance before the panel, Baker was also able to deliver news of the program moving along: 4.8 million coupons had been requested, she said.

John Taylor, vice president of government relations and communications for LG Electronics, said his company is checking into what it will take to add an analog pass-through, but said a redesign would take several months and add a few dollars in manufacturing costs. He also said LG wanted consumers wanting to receive analog signals to understand that they could do some simple things, like install a splitter.

“The majority of consumers are not going to be affected by this,” he said. “I don’t think this is a major roadblock.”

Ron Bruno, president of the Community Broadcasters Association, called the boxes without the pass-through “bad boxes” and the ones with the feature “user-hostile boxes.”

“Everytime one of these boxes are plugged in, we lose a viewer. We are out of business over this program,” he said. “Mr. Chairman, we need help.”