Unintended consequences

The countdown clock is ticking, but will the era of analog television broadcasting really end Feb. 17, 2009?

Millions of viewers who still depend on free-to-air analog TV signals have already applied for DTV converter box coupons that are being issued by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). These boxes were scheduled to become available on Feb. 17, 2008. The coupons, worth $40 toward the purchase of an NTIA-approved DTV converter box, are valid for 90 days. (See “Web links” on page 20.)

Those visiting the DTV coupon program Web site, and virtually all of the other government and industry sponsored Web sites intended to educate the public about the DTV transition and the end of analog broadcasting, will find statements to the effect: “Analog television sets receiving free TV using an antenna will not work after February 17, 2009. Television viewers with these sets that are not connected to a pay TV service will need to take action before February 17, 2009, to ensure their TV sets continue to work.”

Unfortunately, the Law of Unintended Consequences has once again reared its ugly head. In the rulemaking process, the government overlooked some key details, including the fact that there are 2600 LPTV and Class A stations that will continue to broadcast in analog after the February 2009 cutoff. In addition, let's not forget the 4400 TV translators that will continue to rebroadcast full-power stations in analog, perhaps for years to come.

How can that be? Because there are no current FCC regulations to make these translators go digital.

These oversights have members of the Community Broadcasters Association (CBA) up in arms. The association, which represents the LPTV industry, has filed a complaint with the FCC and is trying to get the NTIA to rework the DTV converter box program to deal with several shortcomings that threaten to eliminate its audience. If the agencies overseeing the DTV transition refuse to take corrective action, the CBA says it will sue. This is likely to catch the attention of some legislators who believe that the DTV transition has not been handled properly, and it could lead to another delay in the analog cutoff.

Where's the beef?

You may be asking yourself how we got this far into the transition only to find that the agencies that are responsible for this transition have overlooked a few things. Those who understand why we are going through this transition know that analog TVs are not going to stop working next year. The cable industry is telling subscribers that they don't need to do anything; their analog tiers will still be there when full-power broadcasters pull the plugs on those analog transmitters. And DBS subscribers, who already have digital set-top boxes, have nothing to worry about.

Even the politicians seemed to understand the issues when they crafted the legislation enabling the DTV converter box program. The legislation set aside about $10 million to equip TV translators with digital-to-analog converters so that they could receive the DTV broadcasts and retransmit them as analog signals. On Oct. 29, 2007, the NTIA announced the start of the LPTV digital-to-analog conversion grant program to help low-power television stations continue analog broadcasts. (See “Web links.”)

Also in October, the FCC issued a consumer advisory about the effect of the DTV transition on Class A and LPTV stations and TV translators. (See “Web links.”) Yet somehow, both the NTIA and FCC failed to take the continued operation of these facilities into consideration in their DTV education programs.

So, if the analog tuners in existing TV sets will still be able to receive the signals from LPTV stations and translators, why is the CBA so upset?

There are two main issues:

  1. You have to dig fairly deep into the government Web sites about the DTV transition to learn that LPTV stations and translators will continue to broadcast in analog. And the promotional spots that full-power TV stations are running simply state that your old TV won't work after “their” analog transmitters are shut down.
  2. The DTV converter boxes could have been designed properly to deal with this problem, but the NTIA claims that it did not require the necessary feature because it would have added cost to these boxes.

There are two ways in which these low-cost boxes can be redesigned to deal with the problem:

  1. Provide an analog RF pass-through capability with an A/B switch for the converter.
  2. Provide an integrated NTSC tuner that would allow analog stations to be tuned directly.

The analog pass-through feature is included in some of the boxes that the NTIA has approved, including the $39.95 box announced at CES by EchoStar and Sling Media.

Ironically, many of the NTSC-approved STBs have disabled NTSC tuners inside. Virtually all of the tuner chips used in new DTV-capable displays include an NTSC/cable tuner as well as ATSC and QAM tuners for digital signals. In fact, it is hard to find a new TV that does not include both analog and digital tuners.

The FCC used the all-channel receiver act as the basis for requiring ATSC tuners in every new TV set. A strict interpretation of the law suggests that deleting the NTSC tuner capability may even be a violation of that law. At a more practical level, however, the reality is that the NTIA decision to remove this capability from the boxes approved for the DTV coupon program was seriously flawed. The agency now says that it would have added significant cost to these boxes. In reality, this capability would have had little impact on the price and might even have been cheaper than the analog pass-through capability.

To make things even more troublesome, the millions of viewers that have already requested DTV converter coupons may not even be able to buy STBs with pass-through capability, as the coupons expire in 90 days. Several of the announced products with pass-through will not be available until June or later.

This is a fine mess …

One criticism of the CBA effort is that it did not make the government agencies involved with the transition aware of its concerns soon enough. The association filed its complaint with the FCC on Dec. 6, 2007. The NTIA published the manufacturer specifications for the converter boxes in March 2007. The specifications state that analog pass-through is an allowable option. The wording on what is prohibited is less clear. Finally, the NTIA did not release an approved list of converter boxes until January of this year.

So now what happens? Getting a bunch of bureaucrats to move quickly to address these issues may be difficult. But action is needed immediately, and a lawsuit could create an even larger mess.

Auctions for the 700MHz spectrum that is to be recovered from TV broadcasters when the analog transmitters are shut down are taking place now. If these auctions raise the amount of money that the politicians expect, it may be difficult to change the deadline.

It is an election year, and politicians need to raise more than $3 billion to pay for the 2008 elections. A lot could happen on the legislative front during the run-up to the elections. Full-powered broadcasters will receive a large part of that $3 billion for campaign ads. Perhaps the politicians could run a few ads on LPTV and Class A stations to help compensate them for the audience loss that may result from this unintended consequence of the DTV transition.

Craig Birkmaier is a technology consultant at Pcube Labs.

Send questions and comments to: craig.birkmaier@penton.com

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