Industries Unite in DTV Fight

Broadcasters, manufacturers make consensus filing to NTIA on converter boxes

Broadcasters and consumer-electronics manufacturers have often been at loggerheads on various issues. But the two industries found common ground in the looming challenge of how 20 million households that rely solely on over-the-air television—and an estimated 70 million analog sets—will continue to receive TV when analog broadcasts cease on Feb. 17, 2009.

Last week, in a rare alliance, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), broadcast trade group Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) filed joint comments with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) regarding the $1.5 billion federal program under which consumers will get coupons for low-cost converter boxes that will display DTV programming.

The move was described as groundbreaking by members of both industries, particularly since the comments include recommended receiver-performance standards for the digital-to-analog converter boxes, something that manufacturers have sternly opposed for full-fledged DTV sets.

“The issue of receiver-performance standards has been around since the All Channel Receiver Act [of 1962], and that's been around for 40 years,” says MSTV President David Donovan. “It's always been a source of tension between the two industries. But we were able to rise above that and focus on these particular products.”

“This is a unique situation, and it is historic that the industries have come together,” adds John Taylor, VP of government relations for LG Electronics, which has already partnered with MSTV to create a prototype converter box. “It sends a strong message to NTIA that we are all committed to working together to make the transition a success.”

Both sides say that setting minimum performance requirements is vitally important. Since the NTIA's goal is a retail price of $50 per box, with a government coupon of $40 picking up most of consumers' cost, broadcasters are worried that the pressure to produce a low-cost product will prompt manufacturers to use inferior components. They cite the wide range of receiver performance among existing DTV sets in the marketplace.

Moreover, many of the TVs aren't connected to an outdoor antenna and are located in challenging reception environments, such as basement “rec rooms.” And many of the consumers who will wind up buying the boxes, such as lower-income and older viewers, may not be technically savvy nor inclined to spend a lot of time playing with antennas.

“The reception conditions will be horrid,” says Lynn Claudy, NAB senior VP of science and technology; he says the converter boxes must be easy to use and should have the best receiver technology.

In July, the NTIA suggested the converter boxes meet a certain set of technical guidelines known as A/74. But the problem with A/74, say broadcasters, is that it was never really a standard, just a recommendation, and receiver-chip technology has improved dramatically in the two years since A/74 was drafted.

Ira Goldstone, chief technology officer for Tribune Broadcasting, notes that prototype converter boxes built by LG and Thomson already exceed A/74 in areas like multipath performance and signal overload. A74 sets a “much lower bar,” says Goldstone.

The joint NAB/MSTV/CEA filing uses A/74 as the basis for much of its technical recommendations on converter boxes but gives some hard metrics on various receiver characteristics, such as dynamic range and adjacent channel rejection.

“The proposals exceed A/74 in some respects,” says Donovan. “One of the key issues was to make sure later-generation chips are included in these boxes, and that's what you have here. A/74 standing alone wasn't going to guarantee that. What we filed ensures the latest chip-sets will be included in the box. That was important, particularly to resolve early problems with multipath-interference issues.”

In its comments to NTIA, tuner-chip manufacturer MicroTune suggested that a technical standard based on A/74 should apply to all DTV products, not just to converter boxes. Greg Zancewicz, Microtune product marketing manager, says his company would like to see the government start a certification process where DTV sets and set-tops could be labeled “A/74-compliant.”

Claudy, however, jokes that NAB staffers have tried to count up the number of times they've asked the FCC for a receiver-performance standard for DTV sets and the number was too high.

“We would not be successful in trying to negotiate an agreement in a larger context,” says Claudy. “The CE manufacturers are not interested in that conversation, and the government is not interested.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the converter-box program. NTIA has proposed starting to take requests for coupons, at a maximum of two per household, Jan. 1, 2008, and ending the program March 31, 2009. Coupons will expire in three months. With the typical manufacturing cycle for a consumer-electronics product taking 18 months, manufacturers and broadcasters want NTIA to issue technical specs as soon as possible.

Although LG is waiting like other manufacturers for NTIA to issue final rules, the company is “well down the path on the development cycle,” says Taylor, through its work with MSTV on a prototype box. He expects LG will have a product available in early 2008, as will other manufacturers.

An NTIA spokesman says the agency is reviewing the large volume of comments and intends to issue in 2007 comprehensive final rules on the converter-box program regarding coupon distribution, consumer education and technical specifications.

“We're hoping they come out as soon as possible,” says Donovan of MSTV. “Manufacturers have a lifecycle of products to build, and they need some lead- time. We're less than 900 days from the digital-transition date. So we would like NTIA to move forward with the project sooner rather than later.”