Skip to main content

NTIA Issues Converter Program Specs

The federal agency in charge of distributing subsidies for digital-to-analog converters released details of the program March 12. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration released its rulemaking on who will qualify for what kind of converter box, and how the subsidy will be handled.

The boxes themselves, designed to keep analog, over-the-air TVs working once analog broadcasting ends Feb. 17, 2009, will have to meet certain criteria to be included in the program. Dave Donovan, chief of the Association of Maximum Service Television, said the specifications exceed A/74, the Receiver Performance Guidelines issued by the Advanced Television Systems Committee in June 2004. During the rulemaking comment period, there was concern among broadcast engineers that A/74 alone would be inadequate; particularly since these boxes would be employed around the time unlicensed devices will begin populating TV taboo channels.

The technical specifications direct that the boxes must:

• decode all video formats in ATSC A/53E Table A3, although original frame rate and spatial resolution need not be preserved.

• support a 4:3 center cut-out of 16:9 images; letterboxed 16:9 and "full or partially zoomed output of unknown transmitted image."

• process PSIP.

• receive Channels 2-69.

• include a 75-ohm F-type antenna input connection.

• include a 75-ohm F-type, selectable Channel 3 or 4 NTSC output.

• include RCA connections to output stereo sound and composite video.

• receive all multicast channels.

• comply with FCC rules on closed-captioning, emergency alerts and V-chip functions.

• power down to a 2 watt "sleep" state after four hours of inactivity.

• have a signal quality indicator, a remote control and the RF cable necessary to hook it up to a TV.

Other specs include a dynamic tuner range of -83 to -5 dBm, as opposed to -83 to -8 dBm set forth in A/74. Tables for co-, adjacent- and taboo-channel rejection thresholds and static echo-delay tolerance are available in the NTIA Information Sheet for Manufacturers.

Electronic program guide and smart antenna features are optional.

The subsidy will not be provided for boxes that include recording or picture-in-picture functions or specialized outputs such as USB, Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, component video, DVI or WiFi. The NTIA can have the devices verified by the FCC upon request.

The last Congress allocated up to $1.5 billion for the subsidies, to be distributed in the form of coupons. Lawmakers directed that no more than two $40 coupons be provided via snail mail to households requesting them between Jan. 1, 2008 and March 31, 2009; that two coupons can't be used for one converter; and that the coupons expire in three months.

The funds are to be divvied up in two phases, with $990 million set aside for the first wave, and another $510 million later if there's still a demand for coupons. NTIA Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information John Kneuer said all households may request coupons in first wave, then only those households relying exclusively on over-the-air television when the $990 million is exhausted.

Minus administrative funds, the initial pot of money should yield about 22.5 million coupons, enough for half that many households if everybody opts for two. The second set of funds would cover another 11.5 million coupons. Depending on the source, there are anywhere from 11.5 million to 20 million households in the United States that rely exclusively on broadcast signals for television service. The NAB estimates that there are around 70 million TV sets in American homes that are not hooked up to cable or satellite. If that estimate is correct--notwithstanding a normal rate of replacement--36 million TVs could be scrapped in 2009.

The NTIA got kudos from several lobbies for opening the program up to all households, including the Consumer Union, the NAB, the Consumer Electronics Association and MSTV. However, Congressman John Dingell, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, slammed the NTIA for restricting second-wave funds. The Michigan Democrat wanted more money for the program but it was curtailed by the Republicans in charge at the time.

"NTIA's decision to limit eligible households may impede a smooth transition, which could delay both getting spectrum to public safety users and the benefits of advanced wireless technologies to consumers," Dingell said in a statement. "After the administration opposed Democratic efforts to secure sufficient funding in favor of more tax cuts, the administration now shows newfound concern that not all households will be covered. If the administration believes additional funds are needed to prevent consumers' television sets from going dark, then it should ask the Congress for such funding."

A third part of the NTIA's rulemaking involves retailers, who must also adhere to certain qualifying criteria, including how the coupons are redeemed and tracked.

The agency has also issued a Request for Proposals for distribution of coupons. The RFP asks for feedback on consumer education, retailer certification, coupon activation, financial processing and auditing. A public meeting on the RFP is scheduled for March 19 at 10 a.m. in the Commerce Department Auditorium. A bidders conference will be held March 26 at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at 1305 East West Hwy., Silver Spring, MD. Proposals must be submitted by April 30.