Low-Power Broadcasters Sue Over Converter Box Program

Following through on its threats, the Community Broadcasters Association, representing low-power broadcasters, filed suit in federal court to block the distribution of over-the-air converter boxes that block analog signals.

CBA has maintained that most of the boxes eligible for the government’s $40 coupon violate the All Channel Receiver Act, which mandates that all TV receivers be capable of receiving all channels. Most boxes available at retail lack an analog pass-through function that would enable reception of those low-power, Class A and translator TV stations that will continue broadcasting in analog after their full-power counterparts cease on Feb. 18, 2009.

The 25-page CBA petition, filed March 26 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, asks the court to direct the FCC “to take immediate steps to require compliance” with the law and its own rules.

“The need for action is especially urgent, since noncompliant devices are being sold today and are being subsidized by a federal program that stimulates immediate purchasing because subsidy coupons expire only 90 days after being mailed by the government,” the CBA petition says. “The FCC has refused to intervene to enforce the law despite having been formally asked to do so.”

NAB did not respond to requests for comment on the suit. Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro accused the group of “11th hour litigation” to freeze the nation in analog.

“Now, as cover for its refusal to shift to DTV, CBA wants to impose new costs on millions of Americans who do not rely on or use their service,” he said in a statement. “This is an irresponsible lawsuit, as was CBA’s advertising calling the government program a ‘scam.’ CBA should act in the national interest and either shift to digital or promote the several converter box models with analog pass-through that already provide the solution CBA seeks. Instead, CBA would block the DTV transition, threaten $20 billion in analog auction revenue, waste billions of dollars in sunk investment and force consumers to spend much more to buy converter boxes.”

In response, Herman recalled Shapiro’s Feb. 19 statement on the transition: “What’s the worst that will happen? A few people won’t get TV for a few days.”

“When you make a mistake, it is common to try to point the finger of blame somewhere else,” he said. “There is no way that the converter box debacle is CBA’s fault, and it is grossly unfair to say otherwise. CBA was not silent; it pointed out the analog problem to NTIA in its comments in the converter box rule making on September 25, 2006, long before any boxes were designed or certified for coupon eligibility.

“It is CEA’s members who are responsible for understanding the laws that apply to their products,” Herman said. “They recently went through an FCC proceeding where they were ordered to put digital tuners in all TV devices under the All Channel Receiver Act, so they are fully aware of the requirements of that law. ... The technology for dual tuners is well-established, and the necessary circuitry is already manufactured in mass quantity and is very inexpensive. If converter box costs skyrocket, that may be the doing of CEA’s members, not any legal requirement.”