The National Telecommunications and Information Administration said it will review test results submitted by tuner company Microtune that suggested that the digital-TV-to-analog converter boxes the NTIA has approved don't measure up, and it will audit boxes currently on the shelves, if necessary.
Microtune said the tuners it built into nine of the 60 or so boxes that qualify for a $40 government subsidy work fine, but five boxes it tested off the shelf with other tuners in them did not and might fail to pick up some DTV-station signals. It asked the NTIA to audit the boxes currently on the shelves and decertify any that failed to meet the standards.
The NTIA is overseeing the program supplying $40 coupons toward the purchase of eligible boxes -- essentially basic models without extra features -- that will allow analog TVs to receive over-the-air digital broadcasts when full-power TV stations switch to all-digital broadcasting in February 2009.
NTIA spokesman Bart Forbes said all of the boxes the NTIA certified were rigorously tested and passed those tests, but he conceded that "the question is what is on the store shelves, and that is what we will follow through on." He said the NTIA could test the boxes on the market if it needed to.
Microtune argued that there might be a difference between the models submitted for testing and the ones that made it to the shelves. Microtune president Jim Fontaine pointed out to B&C that the program relies on self-testing by the manufacturers of their boxes and that the NTIA made it clear that "you cannot provide 'golden units' that work very well in the [NITA] test and not make sure that works in production."
"We appreciate that Microtune is bringing this to our attention," Forbes said. "We would like to see their test results [Microtune says it has supplied them] and compare them with our tests of all of the coupon-eligible converter boxes. We will evaluate the boxes accordingly."
NTIA's rules for the program make it clear that it has the authority to test, retest, and decertify boxes if need to to ensure quality control.
According to those rules: "NTIA reserves the right to test CECBs as an additional means to assure that converters made available to the public meet NTIA's specifications. NTIA may select converters to test at any time during the course of the coupon program. If a converter box appears not to meet NTIA's technical specifications, NTIA will follow a process similar to that used by the FCC in consulting with the manufacturer. If a converter box model is subsequently found not to meet the features and performance specifications set forth in the Final Rule, that model will no longer will no longer be eligible for the coupon program."
The converter boxes are under fire on another front, as well. The Community Broadcasters Association went to court to block distribution of boxes that do not pass through analog signals, although it targeted the Federal Communications Commission rather than the NTIA.
Acting NTIA head Meredith Atwell Baker said she would "defer to the FCC on the pending litigation" -- the FCC isn't commenting. But an NTIA source suggested that its reading of the law is that there are dueling statutes.
The CBA cited the 1962 All-Channel Receiver Act, which pertained to the requirement that all TVs be able to receive all frequencies, including the nascent UHF channels. But the statute establishing the converter-box-coupon program said the boxes need only receive and convert digital channels. "This is not our fight," he said.
In a statement, Baker sounded like it was full-steam ahead: "We will continue to move forward on certifying converter boxes to enable the digital-television transition. We will continue to work with the low-power community to help educate them that their viewers will need to purchase a converter box with low-power pass-through capability."