CBA considers options to remedy DTV converter box omission

The Community Broadcasters Association (CBA) is considering several options — many of which could derail the DTV transition, including filing suit — to remedy what it sees as a serious flaw in the government-sponsored DTV converter box coupon program.

The association objects to the converter box design that qualifies for the $40 reimbursement coupon from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) because it does not include an NTSC tuner.

To LPTV stations, TV translator stations and Class A stations, the NTIA’s decision to adhere to a strict interpretation of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 could be fatal. The federal agency has held the act to mean that a converter can only have the ability to receive ATSC digital television signals and make them available to an analog television. However, the roughly 4100 TV translator stations, 2600 low-power TV stations, and 500 Class A stations across the country are only now beginning down the DTV conversion path and will continue to transmit NTSC signals for the foreseeable future. A DTV converter box without an analog tuner effectively will cut off viewers from these stations because nearly all of them do not get carried on satellite or cable.

“Distribution of the boxes, in our opinion, may well be illegal,” said Greg Herman, CBA vice president of technology and owner of WatchTV, a Portland, OR, low-power television broadcaster.

The CBA contends the All Channel Receiver Act requires all television receivers to receive all television channels allocated to broadcasting. “When the FCC ordered television and TV device manufacturers to include digital tuners in all of their devices, it said that reception of all channels means not only channels 2 through 69, but all of the stations that are broadcast on those channels,” said association legal counsel Peter Tannenwald.

While the act doesn’t spell out that analog tuners are required, Tannenwald contends that to be logically consistent, NTSC tuners are necessary. “The thing that the FCC has explicitly stated is to receive all channels during the transition, you must have a digital tuner. It’s my application of that logic to say that if you receive all channels during the transition, you must have an analog tuner as well,” he said.

On Jan. 25, the FCC met with Herman and other representatives of the association to discuss how to proceed. With the first converter boxes expected on retailers’ shelves in mid-February, the meeting took on added urgency.

According to Herman, the CBA sought six things:

  • a requirement for all converter boxes produced after those initially shipped to include an NTSC tuner;
  • a label on those first converter boxes to warn consumers that they will block reception of some federally licensed television stations;
  • point-of-purchase displays at retailers with the same warning;
  • the right for consumers to return the initial boxes without penalty for converter boxes with analog tuners;
  • an extension of the NTIA coupon program to six months; and
  • a redirected DTV public education effort to inform Americans that only a minority of all TV stations will make the digital conversion in February 2009.

“We have never desired to shut down the digital transition, we just want to make it fair,” said Herman. However, if the government “ignores this issue and doesn’t do the right thing,” the association may seek relief from the other branches of government.

“We are looking at all the options, including seeking judicial relief, asking for help from Congress and continuing discussions with the FCC,” said Tannenwald.

This week, the NAB announced the formation of the Low Power TV Issues Committee to address the situation. NAB president and CEO David Rehr, acting at the direction of the NAB TV board, has prepared a letter to converter box manufacturer urging them to include analog pass-through capability in their boxes. Currently, only a handful of the boxes do.

The CBA regards analog pass through as an inelegant means of addressing the situation because of the complexity it produces for consumers. Further, it holds that analog pass through is inconsistent with what is called for by the All Channel Receiver Act.

The NTIA design for converter boxes that qualify for the coupon closely matches design specifications issued by the NAB and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV).