FCC Pushes DTV Standards

Wants to make room for more services with firmer specs

Broadcasters and TV set makers are being asked to help "fast-track"—i.e., finish within nine months—voluntary performance standards for DTV receivers, including possibly creating some sort of "Good Broadcasting" seal of DTV approval.

The FCC last week said it may ask manufacturers to create labels for top-performing DTV receivers so consumers will know which ones reliably receive signals off the air without relying on rooftop antennas or requiring cable hookups.

The request was part of a broader inquiry examining the potential for both mandatory and voluntary receiver performance standards for all telecommunications devices, including wireless and satellite products. Voluntary guidelines are also being considered for new in-band, on-channel digital radios.

The FCC dismissed requests by the broadcast industry for mandatory receiver performance standards. Those requests have been made several times by the National Association of Broadcasters, the Association for Maximum Service Television and Sinclair Broadcasting, while equipment makers have opposed mandatory labeling, led by the Consumer Electronics Association.

Both sides have found something to like in the FCC's suggestions. "We would like to see mandatory standards but we've got to be realistic about the political atmosphere," said Nat Ostroff, Sinclair's technology chief. "It ought to be possible to get 'best practices' standards in place and required labeling of whether a device meets those specifications."

Michael Petricone, CEA VP of technology, said, "We are pleased the FCC does not intend to pursue mandatory standards for receivers." The CEA is still reviewing the call for voluntary guidelines and labeling.

The government has been reluctant to establish receiver performance standards—especially for TVs, radios and other consumer devices—fearing that high standards could eliminate popular, low-cost products and stifle creation of new products. Instead, the agency has regulated power levels of licensees' transmitters.

But with new services knocking on the door, the commission wants to find out if more demanding receiver performance measures would allow it to fit some of those new entrants into currently occupied spectrum bands. "Spectrum sharing is increasingly necessary and common," agency Chairman Michael Powell said in a statement last week. "Shared expectations about the characteristics of receiver equipment allow all parties to plan for and mitigate interference."

FCC officials opined that if broadcast radio receivers were designed to tolerate higher levels of interference, the industry would not have had reason to complain about signal conflicts created by the terrestrial repeaters used by satellite radio providers XM and Sirius to ensure uninterrupted service in local markets.

Better receivers conceivably would have made Congress less eager to scale back the FCC's low-power radio plan four years ago. But full-power broadcasters convinced lawmakers that the FCC's original plan would have created too many new stations and unacceptable interference for established full-power stations. The agency continues to insist that the original low-power plan would not have created unacceptable interference to full-power stations.

For DTV, receiver performance guidelines would have an extra benefit—in addition to squeezing new services onto the band.

FCC officials predict that labeling which sets provide reliable off-air reception would speed consumer adoption of digital service. "Such identification would allow consumers to easily identify high-performance products and would allow manufacturers/retailers to emphasize the features of those products to encourage consumers to purchase them," the agency said in the inquiry notice.

The FCC indicated that it would like the industry trade groups to convene a task force within three months and to recommend guidelines in six to nine months.

Among the issues to be addressed are the potential impact interference specifications would have on innovation of new designs and features and the effect guidelines would have on production costs, consumer prices, availability and user demand.

Similar questions are being asked for digital radio, although the FCC also wants comments on whether millions of analog-only radios should have any protections from possible interference when digital service rolls out.

Unlike digital TV stations, which were granted a second channel for digital, IBOC digital radio will require radio stations to add a second digital signal on the same channel as their analog broadcast.