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Chris Llana, Editor


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NTIA Proposes Rules for Converter Box Coupons -- Sort Of

July 30, 2006

On July 25, the NTIA officially asked for public input on how it should implement the Congressionally-mandated subsidy program for digital-to-analog TV converter boxes. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) was published in the Federal Register.

I say "sort of" in the title because normally a proposed rule is a complete and specific proposed regulation, complete enough to be incorporated as is in the Code of Federal Regulations. This NTIA "proposed rule" is more like an "Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" (ANPRM) in that the agency isn't quite sure what it wants to do, and goes out and generally seeks the public's ideas.

That's good thing. But ordinarily the next step after an ANPRM would be to publish a legitimate NPRM so that we all can see the actual specific regulations that the agency wants to make final, so that the public can comment on that. Here, the NTIA says it wants the next step to be the final rule, with no further opportunity for comment.

Certainly time is running short. Not so much for consumers, but the manufacturers of the devices and the retailers interested in selling them need to have time to get these things on the shelves, well, hopefully by January 1, 2008.

That's why I've been making comments about the NTIA sitting on these rules for the last seven months.

Congress spelled out the main rules for the subsidy program in the 7-month-old law that set the hard cut-off date for analog broadcasts at February 17, 2009, but left it to the NTIA to make it happen. The NTIA is the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (a small part of the Commerce Department).

A telling mistake

Unfortunately, the NTIA has started out on the wrong foot, misreading the law, and needlessly adding to consumer confusion.

In its proposal and the press release that accompanied the NPRM, the NTIA says up front that "The converter boxes are necessary for consumers who wish to continue receiving broadcast programming over the air using analog-only televisions after February 18, 2009."

The law says otherwise: "A full-power television broadcast license that authorizes analog television service may not be renewed to authorize such service for a period that extends beyond February 17, 2009."

In other words, February 17 is the last day that analog broadcasts will be allowed. Converter boxes will be needed after that date (after the 17th), and clearly not beginning after the 18th.

February 18 actually marks the first day that digital broadcasts will be the only game in town, and the first day when TV channels above 51 will be gone.

Yes, I know it's only one day, but if they get something as basic and simple as this wrong, what are they going to do with the more difficult stuff?

Getting a coupon

NTIA's proposal reiterated the baseline rules for the subsidy program that were set out in the law.

Basically: TV households may apply for up to two $40 coupons between January 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009. Each coupon may be used toward the purchase of one digital-to-analog converter box at participating retailers. Two coupons cannot be used to buy one D/A converter box. Coupons will expire three months after they have been issued.

The NTIA proposal would require the following information on the application for a coupon:

  1. Name;

  2. address;

  3. the number of coupons that they require;

  4. a certification that they only receive over-the-air television signals using an analog-only (NTSC) television receiver; and

  5. a certification that no other member of the household has or will apply for a coupon.

The legislative history of the law suggests that Congress wanted this program as a safety net for people with analog TVs who relied exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts for TV programming. If they could also not afford to buy a converter box or new TV, their sets would go dark at the end of the transition.

In other words, if at least one analog TV in the household is connected to a cable or satellite service, or if there is at least one digital TV in the household, the converter box subsidy would not be available.

NTIA is being mindful of the highly publicized fraud and waste in the Dept. of Homeland Security's Katrina assistance program. They do not want a repeat (with this program going full steam ahead just before the next presidential elections).

So much of their proposal concerns the prevention of fraud, and how to make sure it doesn't happen. Unfortunately, relying on self-certification of honesty might not do it.

Means test for applicants?

Because of the limited number of converter box coupons that would be available under this program (no more than $1.5 billion worth), NTIA is asking whether a financial means test for coupon eligibility should be imposed, and if so, at what level and how measured (eg. a certain income level).

There was a debate in Congress on a means test--they ended up without one--wisely so. Adding complexity to a program like this would yield a mess. The alternative is first-come, first-served.

The key, of course, is to make sure that everyone who really needs the converter box subsidy learns about the program early on and submits a request for a coupon. To this end, the NTIA is asking for advice on what sort of public information program it should run (within its $5 million budget constraint for consumer education). The NPRM is silent on the pending legislation that directs the FCC to conduct the public "outreach" program. Hopefully the two agencies will see fit to coordinate.

The Box

On a more technical level, Congress specified limits on the hardware that could be purchased with the coupon, declaring:

"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."

NTIA is proposing additional specific performance requirements for eligible converter boxes:

(a) Appropriately processes all ATSC radio frequency (RF) signals provided to the antenna-only input and then provides output signals in standard definition video for display on an NTSC television receiver/monitor;

(b) Delivers NTSC composite video and stereo audio to drive NTSC monitors;

(c) Delivers Channel 3 or 4 switchable (NTSC) RF output for television receivers;

(d) Complies with FCC requirements for Closed Captioned, Emergency Alert System (EAS) and the required parental controls;

(e) Operable by and includes a remote control; and

(f) Tunes to all television channels 2 - 69.

While digital TV channels will only go up to 51 after February 17, 2009, many of these converter boxes will be used up to a year before that cut-off date, and so including the capability of tuning channels 52-69 is appropriate.

NTIA is asking how the converter boxes eligible for participation in the coupon program should be identified for the consumer. Eg. a list of approved boxes on the coupon, or enclosed with the coupon, or listed on a web site. etc.

Comments?

NTIA wants comments by September 25. If you're interested in telling them what you think, you can download a copy of the proposed rule , and send your comments by snail mail (Milton Brown, Office of the Chief Counsel, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1401 Constitution Avenue, Room 4713, Washington, DC 20230), fax(202-501-8013), or e-mail (coupon@ntia.doc.gov).

Reference the Docket Number 060512129-6129-01 and title "Implementation and Administration of a Coupon Program for Digital-to-Analog Converter Boxes."