DTV Angst Abounds
As initial subsidy funds dwindle, lawmakers get mixed signals on transition
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/15/2008 8:00:00 PM
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DTV Confusion Continues
An optimist might suggest that as the digital-TV countdown clock continues to tick away toward the Feb. 17, 2009, deadline, problems should be dissipating. But if that is the case, it would be hard to tell from the issues that roiled in Washington last week.
Smaller cable operators, for one thing, are attempting to leverage the DTV transition in their battle with broadcasters over the retransmission consent process. Officials last week were making the novel argument that breakdowns in retransmission consent negotiations (many current contracts are up at the end of this year) could confuse viewers and impede the process.
Also in conflict is the issue of how to handle DTV-to-analog converter box subsidies when the program runs through its first round of funding—$890 million—less than two months from now. At a Capitol Hill oversight hearing on the state of the transition last week, there appeared to be confusion, or at least disagreement, over whether viewers whose $40 DTV-to-analog converter box coupons had expired would be able to reapply for them. Some key legislators have been pushing for an answer to that question, though the government agency overseeing the program may have to turn back to those same legislators to get that authority.
At that same hearing, Mark Goldstein of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) pointed out that more than a third of analog-only households surveyed indicated they had no plans to buy a new TV or converter box, or had no plans to hook up to cable or satellite, or did not know what they would do.
While the GAO has concluded that most people have cable and satellite service and will be unaffected by the transition, Congress remains worried about the millions classified in the TV “at risk” population.
Officials at the American Cable Association believe one “unforeseen factor” that could complicate the transition would be if cable operators—unable to come to carriage terms—were forced to drop station signals around the time of transition.
In a letter to Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, who presided over the hearing, ACA President Matt Polka expressed concern that this could cause “mass confusion” in the run-up to the digital transition. “Consumers will be unaware whether or not their lost channels are a result of the DTV transition, an unfulfilled personal responsibility such as buying the wrong converter box, or another issue entirely,” Polka told Markey.
The National Association of Broadcasters dismissed the argument. “Policymakers shouldn't be fooled by the ACA's desperate attempt to link retransmission consent to DTV—two issues with nothing in common,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton told B&C.
DTV Confusion Continues
The GAO's Goldstein also outlined for concerned legislators another potential headache: Fifteen percent of those households surveyed who already have their sets hooked up to cable or satellite said they'd be getting converter boxes, even though the boxes would be unnecessary. Of that group, a whopping 86% planned to apply for the government subsidy, despite the fact that there was no need to do so.
During the hearing, numerous legislators pressed a representative of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration for an answer on whether consumers would be able to reapply for DTV-to-analog converter box coupons that had expired.
So far, more than 450,000 coupons have expired without being redeemed, NTIA spokesperson Bernadette McGuire-Rivera told the committee. That figure represents 58% of all coupons that have so far reached their expiration date.
In a particularly pointed exchange, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) complained that he and fellow Michigan Democrat and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell had written to the NTIA back in February, asking for an extension to the expiration dates. “It's been almost four months,” Stupak told McGuire-Rivera. “When are we going to get an answer, especially since we know that stores don't have enough converter boxes available?” Stupak said his staff had been unable to find any of the boxes on store shelves.
McGuire-Rivera said the NTIA would not make a decision on whether to extend the coupons' expiration date past the current 90-day period until later in the summer, but suggested Congress would have to weigh in to free up more money for that move.
Adam: You're right. If you live very close to the broadcast towers you wish to receive, you can use a metal coat hanger, provided you don't live in a metro/urban location.
You're very fortunate to receive all the stations you want with rabbit ears from 30 miles away. You must live in a very flat, uncongested location. But people living in cities have Multi-path signals to deal with.
Multi-path (bounced signals) is caused by obstacles such as building, hills, walls, etc. in the line-of-sight to the broadcast towers.
They cause signals to reach the antenna out of phase, confusing the ATSC (Digital) chip set in the converter box or TV tuner (for analog or digital TV sets). If the signal reaching the front of the antenna is not 2 to 3 times stronger than a bounced signal from the same station reaching the back of the antenna, the ATSC chip doesnâ€™t know which signal to use, so it just keeps searching.
Rabbit ears have technology roots going back 30 to 50 years or more and are not going to deal well with multi-path signals in metro/urban areas.
This problem is even worse for indoor antenna, where these signals even bounce off the walls in the viewing room. The answer is to up-grade to a new digital antenna, indoor or outdoor, tuned to receive digital signals that help reject Multi-path signals. Sometimes a bounced signal is better than a direct one, so indoor viewers should move their antennas around the room to find the best reception location, as you did.
Depending on the level of desire to receive an excellent digital picture and multiple broadcast signals, considering the investment in TV entertainment already made by many viewers, shouldnâ€™t they consider up-grading to a new Digital Off-Air Antennas?
Michael Sherman - 6/19/2008 4:13:00 PM EDT
To Mr. Sherman and other OTA proponents:
Why not sponsor a contest to see who can build the best do-it-yourself OTA antenna? I've seen instructions on Youtube on how to build a coat-hanger antenna that supposedly works better than many store-bought models.
I was amazed at how well my second upstairs set works with simply rabbit ears when I relocated them from near the set to a window "aimed" at the closest antenna farm 30 miles away. Viewers are not being told they can get "FREE HDTV" with a simple pair of well-aimed rabbit ears. If the "Geek Squad" installed DTV antennas, they'd make a bundle, especially if and when a broadcaster promotes the full benefits of DTV -- FREE HD -- instead of promoting converter boxes for analog sets.
Adam Smith - 6/18/2008 3:53:00 PM EDT
"Officials at the American Cable Association believe one â€œunforeseen factorâ€ that could complicate the transition would be if cable operatorsâ€”unable to come to carriage termsâ€”were forced to drop station signals around the time of transition."
The answer to this problem and many other TV reception problems is to add a new digital Off-Air antenna.
While cable and satellite program providers will continue to serve the great majority of homes as the primary signal source, missing HD local reception, compression issues, higher costs, billing add-ons, service outages, contact difficulties, in-home service waits and no shows have left many of these subscribers looking to OTA antennas as a good alternative.
An Off-Air antenna will add several additional local off-air programs and several in HD almost completely uncompressed, not available from cable or satellite.
Some viewers may even be able to receive out-of-town channels, carrying blacked out sports programs or network broadcasts not available in their home town. As an added benefit, an OTA antenna provides reception for second sets in homes not wired for whole-house signal distribution.
To check out free OTA options, viewers can go to antennapoint.com to easily locate the broadcast stations within range, aiming directions and other OTA helpful information.
Michael Sherman - 6/17/2008 3:01:00 PM EDT
GAO study flawed. Many cable subs do NOT have second- or third-set hookups, so they do need the D-to-A converters. The researchers assume cable subs pay for extra set hookups, when many do not. Second, why aren't the coupons also good for $40 off the price of a new HDTV set? Consumers should have the option to use the subsidy to upgrade. Why not? Such a policy would encourage new set sales and thus help the economy (the Chinese economy more than ours, but stores and marketers would get a slice, too...) The only solution to the transition woes is to extend analog transmissions at least until Aug. 31st, 2011, the Canadian deadline. All parties involved need more time and better planning.
Adam Smith - 6/14/2008 6:44:00 PM EDT
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