Community Broadcasters Move to Block Converter Boxes

The group representing low-power, Class A and translator broadcasters is throwing a potentially major block in front of the program to get digital-to-analog converter boxes onto America’s over-the-air TVs in time for the analog shutoff in February 2009.

In a petition to the FCC filed Thursday, the Community Broadcasters Association says that converter boxes that block analog signals are illegal under the All-Channel Receiver Act, which requires TV receivers to enable display of all available TV signals. The CBA says that boxes planned for sale by Samsung and EchoStar in conjunction with the government’s program of $40 coupons will behave like VCRs and thus comply with the law—that is, they’ll pass through whatever signal comes through the antenna when the box is off on in a “TV” mode. But the other boxes, CBA says, will not.

CBA had told the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the office charged with overseeing the coupon program, that it should require the eligible boxes to receive regular analog signals with a pass-through mechanism such as a toggle switch, said Peter Tannenwald, attorney for CBA. But NTIA’s rules made that feature permissible, but not mandatory.

“I don’t think it occurred to us in the beginning that manufacturers would make their products that way,” Tannenwald said.

He said the Samsung and EchoStar boxes would still be eligible for the coupon program if the FCC acted on the complaint, and other box makers have plenty of ways to come into compliance.

“It’s not necessary for them to interrupt the program,” he said.

In its petition, the CBA notes that there are more than 7,000 stations that will continue broadcasting in analog after full-power stations cease in February 2009.

Major chains have already agreed to participate in the coupon program and have vowed to have them on the shelves by April 2008, and manufacturers have said they’ll have the boxes ready.

The converter box issue is just one of the problems low-power broadcasters face as their full-power counterparts go digital. They’ve also complained of slow FCC action on rules and applications for community broadcasters to move forward. A Nov. 27 FCC order was designed to help community broadcasters and others lease channels on cable systems more easily—addressing one longstanding low-power complaint—but the broadcasters would have liked to see less expensive pricing guidelines in the order, and cable companies are suing to block those guidelines.

The move comes just days after the NTIA said it had approved two more boxes for the program.

The new boxes are from Philips (using the Magnavox and Philco brands). They join two from Korean manufacturer DigitalStream and LG Electronics (under the Zenith brand).

Consumers can start applying for the $40 coupons starting Jan. 1. Retailers have until March 31, 2008, to apply for eligibility in the coupon program.

The NTIA is promising an update on the program from acting NTIA boss Meredith Baker on Tuesday, Dec. 11. She replaced John Kneuer, who resigned at the end of November.