Break Out the Lawyers, It's Congress, Again!

You might not have noticed that NAB stands for National Association of Broadcasters, and it's pronounced N. A. B. These days, folks go to Las Vegas to attend a "nab" show on account of they want to nab a deal on a mobile-phone modem or a satellite set-top box or maybe a massage chair. Oh, yeah, and somewhere amid the vast acreage of camcorders, cable channels, and CD burners, if you look really hard you might find a TV transmitter or two.
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You might not have noticed that NAB stands for National Association of Broadcasters, and it's pronounced N. A. B. These days, folks go to Las Vegas to attend a "nab" show on account of they want to nab a deal on a mobile-phone modem or a satellite set-top box or maybe a massage chair. Oh, yeah, and somewhere amid the vast acreage of camcorders, cable channels, and CD burners, if you look really hard you might find a TV transmitter or two.

I ain't sure how long those transmitters will continue to show up at the "nab" show on account of my not knowing how long there will continue to be something called a television broadcaster. Yes, I'm talking about the recently signed legislation ending analog-TV broadcasting, but that's not the part of the law you ought to read.

THOSE NASTY SUBSECTIONS

What was supposedly signed into law Feb. 8 (but constitutional bicameralism could yet undo) is the "Deficit Reduction Act of 2005." Hey, the last law specifying a cutoff for analog TV (end of this year) was the "Balanced Budget Act of 1997."

The law tells the FCC "to terminate all licenses for full-power television stations in the analog television service, and to require the cessation of broadcasting by full-power stations in the analog television service, by Feb. 18, 2009; and to require by Feb. 18, 2009, that all broadcasting by Class A stations, whether in the analog television service or digital television service, and all broadcasting by full-power stations in the digital television service, occur only on channels between channels 2 and 36, inclusive, or 38 and 51, inclusive (between frequencies 54 and 698 megahertz, inclusive)."

You could pick a nit about channel 37 being excluded in the channels but not the frequencies, and you could ask (not me, please) about translators and non-Class-A LPTV, but the gist is clear: If you're a TV station, stop transmitting analog after midnight on Feb. 17, 2009, and don't be above channel 51 with your digital. For the millions still relying on broadcast NTSC TV that day, there's section 3005, the "Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Program."

Subsection "a" says the program is to provide folks with "coupons that can be applied toward the purchase of digital-to-analog converter boxes." Near as I figure, up to $990,000,000 worth of those coupons are allowed to be distributed.

Subsection "c" tells more about the coupons: each is worth $40. You'll have to ask for them between Jan. 1, 2008 and March 31, 2009. There are no more than two per household. You can't use more than one coupon towards the converter price. The coupons expire three months after they're issued. And, if 24,750,000 coupons ($40 into $990,000,000) ain't enough, maybe there's some more money to use.

MASS MARKET?

Now then, maybe you think the coupons should be worth more, or maybe you think they're an unnecessary imposition on your taxes. Maybe you think that poor folks should have priority, or maybe you think coupons should be useable on all digital-TV purchases, not just converters.

Those are all arguments you can take up with your elected representatives, but I can't find much doubt about what the law says or intends. That is, I can't until I get to subsection "d."

"For purposes of this section, the term 'digital-to-analog converter box' means a stand-alone device that does not contain features or functions except those necessary to enable a consumer to convert any channel broadcast in the digital television service into a format that the consumer can display on television receivers designed to receive and display signals only in the analog television service, but may also include a remote control device."

My, my! Manufacturers have been promising that those converter boxes will cost $50. Methinks that's on account of their figuring there will be a mass market for them. But subsection "d" is so restrictive that maybe the market won't be so mass after all.

Have a look at the digital-to-analog converter boxes that are out there today. Some of them receive DirecTV as well as digital TV. Well now, DirecTV ain't "necessary to... convert any channel broadcast in the digital television service into a format that the consumer can display on television receivers designed to receive and display signals only in the analog television service." So you won't be allowed to use a coupon on a DirecTV receiver.

Some current converters have built-in recorders. But those ain't "necessary," so you won't be allowed to use coupons on them, either.

Want to use an external recorder, like a D-VHS machine? That'd require an unnecessary IEEE-1394 connection. Want to use an analog VHS recorder? If you connect it via the RF output from the converter box, I suppose that'd work. But, if the converter box has analog audio and video outputs (never mind HDMI), they're unnecessary to an analog TV receiver, so you can't use your coupon on it.

To my meager mind, the converter specified in the law has to have an RF input, an 8-VSB demodulator, an ATSC demultiplexer, an MPEG-2 decoder, a scaler, an AC-3 decoder, an NTSC modulator, an RF output, and a power supply--and it's allowed to have a remote control. Anything else--other inputs or outputs, program guide, NTSC tuner or bypass for those low-power stations that don't have to be analog by Feb. 18, 2009--and it violates subsection "d," so the coupon can't be used to buy it.

Let me see if I've got this straight. There's a limited number of coupons, so you'd better ask for them early, but they expire three months after you get them, so you'd better be sure there's something to buy first. So, by 2008, when the coupons become available, $50 converter boxes with just digital RF in and just analog RF out and absolutely nothing else will be available, right?

There weren't any at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, but maybe you can nab one at NAB.