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Government Announces Details of Converter Box Subsidy Program

March 12, 2007

Finally!

The NTIA today released details of the government's digital-to-analog converter box subsidy program. That program is mandated by Congress to ease the way into the digital television era for those people who will still be using analog TVs on February 17, 2009, when analog broadcasts will be shut down.

The final rule has still not appeared in the Federal Register, but there is typically a lag of a day or three before that happens.

In three separate information sheets available on NTIA's web site, consumers, manufacturers, and retailers finally get to see what the program means for them.

Consumers

It's not a surprise that the NTIA relented to overwhelming pressure to open up the program to everybody, not just analog TV households relying exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts for their programming. But they did temper that liberalization by conditioning that eligibility only until the initial $990 million allocated for boxes runs out. If they need to draw on a supplemental $510 million, eligibility then becomes limited to over-the-air households.

You will be able to request coupons beginning January 1, 2008, through March 31, 2009. You will be able to request coupons via toll-free telephone number, by fax, by mail, and of course via web site.

Coupons will expire three months after they are mailed. Each will be worth $40 toward the purchase of one converter box--one coupon per converter box. Coupons will be electronically trackable and uniquely numbered (like gift cards); transactions will be verified at the point of sale.

What features will eligible boxes have and how will they perform? Technical specifications were also released, so manufacturers know what to build.

Manufacturers

Congress established the basics for what the converter boxes would look like (and what they would not do). Today we have the details.

The boxes will need an antenna, but the antennas used now for analog reception should work just fine for digital TV.

The boxes must be capable of receiving and presenting all of the ATSC digital TV formats (e.g. 1080/60i), although they will obviously not be presented in high-definition nor do the frame rates have to be the same (everything converted to NTSC's 480i).

The box must be able to display all TV channels, including broadcaster's secondary or "sub-channels" (multi-cast).

It must also be able to display closed captioning, emergency alert system messages, and parental controls (V-chip).

The boxes must be capable of presenting the received programming in three different screen formats. This is interesting. The viewer will have the choice of displaying widescreen programming either with its sides chopped off--to completely fill a 4:3 aspect ratio analog screen, OR displayed in letterbox form with black bars top and bottom. The third required output option is a "full or partially zoomed output of unknown transmitted image." So all of the new widescreeen programming will not by necessity be letterboxed, but the tradeoff is you lose the left and right parts of the picture if you don't want black bars. But for legacy 4:3 programming broadcast in widescreen format, the left and right parts of the picture will just be black, so might as well cut them off.

The box must process PSIP data (Program and System Information Protocol). This is the information the TV needs to properly tune in all the digital channels, as well as electronic programming guide information, and other technical data.

The box must be able to tune in channels 2 through 69. After the end of the transition, channels 52 through 69 will be removed from TV service and that spectrum auctioned to other wireless service providers (and some of it allocated to emergency response organizations -- e.g. fire departments, police, etc.). But because many people will be using these converter boxes during 2008 and up to February 17, 2009, when channels 52 through 69 will still be used by TV stations, the extended channel range is being included in the box specifications. After the transition, TV will all be on channels 2 through 51.

The boxes will have the standard RF coax input for your antenna. They will also be required to have an RF output with a channel 3/4 selector for those people whose TVs are so old they don't have even a composite video input (the yellow RCA jack, the one that's next to the red and white audio inputs). The boxes will have those composite outputs: red, white, and yellow RCA output jacks, and they also may (optionally) include one of those yellow/red/white cables in the package.

Optionally, the boxes may also have an S-video output. Eligible boxes may NOT have any other more advanced outputs, including DVI, HDMI, component, VGA, Firewire, Ethernet, or the ability to pass data wirelessly. Manufacturers may build boxes with these outputs, but they will not be eligible for the $40 subsidy.

NTIA is requiring boxes to meet performance specifications for: RF dynamic range (sensitivity), phase noise, co-channel rejection, first adjacent channel rejection, taboo channel rejection, burst noise, field ensembles, and single static echo. They want them to actually work.

And of course it will have a remote control (including batteries), and the consumer will be given the codes needed to program a universal remote (those five remotes cluttering up your coffee table?). Optionally, manufacturers may include a programmable universal remote control.

Energy standards are specified: no more than two watts in sleep state. Unfortunately, there is no power consumption limitation for the "on" state, although optionally, nice manufacturers may build boxes that comply with EPA Energy Star standards or standards established by state authorities (gosh, that was sure generous of NTIA to allow that!).

There are some more good things. An LED "on" indicator is required, as well as an owner's manual. And something really good (sincerely): a signal quality indicator so you can adjust your antenna for maximum signal strength. This is important because with digital signals, the picture is either perfect or not there. With analog, you could adjust the antenna for the best picture (fuzzy to sharp, or maybe least fuzzy). A nice touch.

Speaking of antennas, manufacturers may optionally include a Smart Antenna interface connector, and may sell a Smart Antenna together with such an equipped box at promotional pricing, although the purchase of the converter box may not be conditioned by the purchase of the Smart Antenna. A Smart Antenna is an advanced phased-array electronically steerable antenna capable of (in conjunction with the TV receiver) measuring the strength of the TV signal and electronically (not physically) aiming itself to achieve the maximum strength signal. It does this in real time and of course when you change the channel. If you have a Smart Antenna, you don't have to get up and manually turn the antenna (or do it with an electrical rotator). Electronically steerable phased-array antennas have been around in other fields for awhile (e.g. for radar), but have been very expensive. I haven't seen any for consumer TV applications yet, but apparently they are coming.

Boxes may optionally incorporate an NTSC/analog pass-through (from antenna to receiver) and a pass-through switch for people who may want to tune in analog stations withou having to physically disconnect the converter box. Some translator and "low-power" analog stations will be allowed to continue transmitting an analog signal past the February 17, 2009 cut-off date, and have no digital twin during that period.

That just about covers the boxes eligible for the subsidy. Manufacturers may make unsubsidized boxes that are fancier (for example, with an integrated digital video recorder), but my guess is there will not be any of these. The $40 subsidy makes it hard to compete without it, since basic subsidized boxes are expected to retail for something in the neighborhood of $60, and perhaps as low as $50. That's $10 to $20 final cost to the consumer. Most people with an old analog TV wanting a DVR will probably also be upgrading to HDTV, but who knows? Of course there will also be digital receivers on the market for people who bought "HD-ready" sets, but that's something else. We'll know if there are going to be fancy converter boxes in less than ten months.

Retailers

Retailers who want to participate in this subsidy program must:

- Have systems in place to process coupons electronically for redemption and payment, and report every transaction to the NTIA (through NTIA's contractor);

- Train employees on the purpose and operation of the program using standardized training materials;

- Help the NTIA in minimizing waste and fraud; and

- Be certified (have been in the consumer electronics business for at least a year, get registered, be auditable, etc.).

A list of certified retailers will be made available to the public.

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Now we wait.