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D-A Converters Demonstrated

DTV legislation takes back seat as Capitol Hill deals with Katrina

WASHINGTON: Democrats wouldn't come to the DTV deadline table without some sort of subsidy program for digital-to-analog converter boxes. Such was the conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill at press time, when lawmakers were in the midst of examining the vast bureaucratic miasma that was the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

While Democrats in the Senate Commerce Committee were still waiting to see a draft DTV bill from the majority, members of the House Commerce Committee were inching toward a compromise on converter-box subsidies.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) previously opposed a subsidy program, but sources on Capitol Hill said he "agreed to some form" of it in order to get Democrats to support Dec. 31, 2008 hard-date legislation. What remained to be worked out was how much money would be dedicated to a subsidy fund and who would be eligible to receive it.

House committee members were said to be wrangling for a number between $500,000 and $1 billion. A bill introduced earlier this year in the senate by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) earmarked $463 million for the nation's 9.3 million households that do not exceed twice the poverty level according to estimates from the General Accountability Office. McCain's bill, the SAVE LIVES Act, required that the spectrum used for analog broadcast television be available to first responders as of Jan. 1, 2009. SAVE LIVES was never brought to mark-up in the Commerce Committee, a fact that McCain opined on the Senate floor during a Sept. 13 debate on an appropriations bill.

"Here we are nine months into the first session with another horrible disaster having taken place, and Congress has yet to take up the SAVE LIVES Act or any other legislation providing first responders their promised spectrum," he said. "To what level of crisis must this country endure before we act? Is the devastation from Hurricane Katrina still not enough to bring action? Chairman [Ted] Stevens has stated his intention to include such legislation in the Commerce Committee's response to budget reconciliation. I will be watching to see if the broadcasters find a way to once again delay the hand off of this spectrum to first responders. I will do all I can to move our legislation."

On the House side, Barton was said by a source there to favor the subsidy figure in McCain's bill, while others on the committee were willing to go as high as $1 billion. The overall amount depended on how many D-to-A converters to supply per household and to which households--points that were also still being debated.

The final draft of the House DTV bill was expected to be circulating around the time this issue of TV Technology hits the streets, so the Budget Committee would have time to work it into a reconciliation bill scheduled for mark-up the last week in October.

Many lawmakers consider D-to-A converters a necessary element of a DTV bill because without such a device, shutting off analog broadcast systems would instantly render as many as 70 million television sets obsolete.

Consumer electronics manufacturers have testified several times before Congress that they can turn out reasonably cheap D-to-A converters once a deadline is set.

Four companies--LG, parent company of Zenith, chip maker Zoran, Motorola and Thomson--demonstrated their prototype D-to-A technologies in the Rayburn House Office Building last month. Using a 25-year-old tabletop Zenith TV hooked to a Silver Sensor antenna, LG showed how a legacy set could display digital television signals.

Using a standalone set-top that's not available on the market, LG used the fifth-generation reception technology that overcame multipath interference at DTV test site NYC300, where previous generations failed. (Although subsequent findings indicated that front-end tuner design also contributed to the success of the fifth-generation technology at the Manhattan apartment where digital reception is notoriously bad due to multipath.)

LG was also showing a nonworking prototype of its finished product, a 6.5-by-1.5-by-4.3 inch box weighing less than 2 pounds. It will also use the next generation of LG DTV reception technology, known as 5G-plus, a company spokesman said. The LG D-to-A converter could retail for $50 in '08, "assuming millions of units" are ordered, according to LG.

One representative of a major electronics retailer said orders will indeed be placed for converters once a hard analog shut-off date is set by Congress.

All the D-to-A converter prototypes at the demonstration were hooked up to small indoor antennas, and all participants had side-by-side screens of analog and digital reception, including multicast channels.

Like previous DTV reception demonstrations at the Rayburn, the converter demo was held in a room where the windows face a courtyard walled on all sides--a fertile environment for multipath.

Some interference in the form of snow was evident in the analog signals, but it wasn't enough to cause the digital signals to drop during nearly an hour of observation. The weather was dry and partly cloudy, and while companies making DTV reception technology claim rain does not cause interference, it can exacerbate multipath in urban environments.

All the technologies appeared to work with similar efficacy.