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Weekly Report

May 27, 2007

FCC prepares to hurry-up broadcasters

The FCC has published proposed rules for TV broadcasters that will, when implemented, push them (some kicking and screaming) toward the conclusion of the transition to our new digital TV standard. The Commission warns that "Full-power broadcast stations not ready to commence digital operations upon expiration of the deadline for the transition on February 17, 2009 must go dark and risk losing their authorizations to operate after the transition date."

Many TV stations have been complacent.

The FCC has assigned final digital channels to 1,812 stations. Of these, on February 17, 2009:

  • 1,178 stations will continue their digital transmissions on the same channel (the easiest transition),
  • 517 stations will move their digital signal from their interim digital channel to the channel they had been using for their analog/NTSC broadcasts, and
  • 117 stations will move their digital transmissions to a completely new channel.

The FCC thinks that 752 TV stations in the country are now "ready, or very close to ready" to make the final transition to digital. Here's a list of those stations.

In my area, only one broadcast station is on that list, mainly because that station will be broadcasting post-transition on the same channel as its current interim digital channel assignment. The others have to switch to a different channel, requiring new antennas, transmitters, etc.

Fortunately, in most areas, far more stations will retain their current digital channel. Unfortunately, the end of the transition still looks to be messy. Any preconceptions about all the stations in the country flipping big switches on the evening of February 17, 2009, would now seem to be wishful thinking.

So what's the FCC going to do to make the transition as smooth as possible?

To start, they are now going to start giving highest priority to ensuring that stations meet the transition deadline. Sounds obvious, but that is a change from giving priority to maintaining continuous, full-coverage analog TV service.

Analog broadcast service will likely be reduced prior to the end of the transition in many areas or terminated altogether, if doing so facilitates the completion of digital facilities. For example, the analog broadcast antenna might have to be removed from the top of the tower so that an antenna designed for a different digital channel can be installed.

Things like this can take weeks, or months.

The FCC will be especially receptive to stations wishing to give up analog broadcasts that use "out-of-core" channels. That is, channels 52-69. After the transition, TV channels will be from 2 to 51. The channel 52-69 spectrum is being auctioned off for other wireless services, or will be used for emergency services radio communications, and those guys want those frequencies ASAP.

TV stations that are still working on their interim digital transmission facilities will not have to finish those so they can devote their full attention and resources to completing their final digital facility.

The FCC is also considering letting stations give up their interim digital broadcasts early, running their analog broadcasts up to February 17, 2009, and then "flash cutting" from analog to final digital.

They may also let stations start broadcasting on their final digital channel (for those stations having different interim and final digital channel assignments) before 2/17/09. Many stations would like to do this for a few weeks to test their new equipment. They would only be allowed to do this if the transmissions did not cause interference with other nearby stations.

Perhaps the most effective step the FCC is taking will be to require all TV stations to "file a form with the Commission detailing their current transition status, additional steps necessary in order to be prepared for digital-only operation on February 17, 2009, and a timeline for making those steps."

Apparently some stations haven't even made it to the detailed planning stage.

Of the 1,812 stations that have been given their final digital channel assignment, 1,603 are now broadcasting some sort of digital signal. All should have been at that stage at least four years ago.

Broadcasters start finger-pointing for possible transition delays

As if they are expecting troubles ahead, the head of the National Association of Broadcasters is already casting blame on others. (Trying to distract, are we?)

To wit, David Rehr, head lobbyist for broadcasters, is claiming that there might not be enough digital-to-analog set-top converter boxes for all those analog TVs still around on February 17, 2009. This notwithstanding that the converter box program isn't even supposed to start until January 1, 2008, which in turn is more than thirteen months before the end of the transition.

Rehr claimed the consumer electronics industry's future failings in this regard would cause "significant consumer confusion" and put the success of the transition in jeopardy.

Interestingly, an NAB rep at a recent Congressional hearing claimed that broadcaster public service announcements designed to educate the public about the impending transition would cause tremendous consumer confusion if they were made this year.

They seem to know a lot about confusion, and apparently are a little uncomfortable about the public learning about the transition (hey, the "confusion" argument worked before).

The head lobbyist for the folks that make the boxes immediately fired back that there would be plenty of boxes available (although perhaps not in every little store, because of the significant accounting requirements for processing the government subsidy coupons).

And speaking of stores. . .

Are analog TVs still in stores?

You betcha!

This past Friday, May 25, was the first day the FCC's "Consumer Alert" analog-only TV warning label were required. Also, about three months after new small analog TVs were banned.

Stores were, however, allowed to sell out their existing inventory. Some stores, it seems, had a lot of those little buggers piled high in their back rooms.

Sears, for instance. They were first on my tour last Friday and their analog TV selection is second to none, pretty much the same as it was three months ago. I counted nineteen CRT 4:3 models and about five analog-only LCDs.

Notwithstanding the FCC labeling requirement, there were NO LABELS at Sears. I guess if you want to sell consumers obsolete analog TVs, it wouldn't help to tell them those sets won't work after February 17, 2009 without a converter box. And I guess they know the FCC doesn't enforce its regulations.

So on to Circuit City. They have reduced their analog model count to around fifteen CRT 4:3 sets (plus a few LCDs), and they did have labels, but only about THREE labels for all of those sets (supposed to have one per set). So depending on which set you are looking at, the label might or might not come into play.

Best Buy has been doing a good job clearing out their analog fare. This time I counted four remaining analog sets (three were LCD). Three of the four had labels on the screen. The store did have a very good selection of small digital TVs, both CRT and LCD. Hooray!

Wal-Mart had both small analog and digital TVs. Unlike last month, when even some of the digital TVs had the "Consumer Alert" warning label that said this TV will not receive broadcasts after February 17, 2009, now some analog sets had labels, some didn't.

Speaking of confusion, I spoke to a couple shopping for a small CRT set in Wal-Mart. They were under the impression that over-the-air broadcasts would be shut down in 2009 -- ALL broadcasts! Everyone would have to get cable or satellite.

No need for consumer education this year?

Circuit City is doing their part. They fired 3,400 experienced store workers in March because they were getting paid more than the competition was paying their people. Then they hired novice replacements at entry-level wages.

Circuit City's stock price is down to half its 52-week high.

LCD vs. Plasma, continued

The battle for flat-panel supremacy (or survival) rolls on.

LG is shutting down one of its four plasma plants "to increase operational efficiency and to reduce costs." The plant was LG's oldest, and made 42" panels, a size now almost conceded to LCD.

Another Asian-source analysis claims "LCD makers are emerging as the winners of a long, pricey TV war."

Matsushita (Panasonic) and Samsung aren't giving up just yet, moving the battlefield to larger sizes (50" and up). Those two plasma companies are big enough to reap economies of scale.

LCD production capacity in the larger sizes is not yet sufficiently developed to completely overwhelm plasma. But it's getting there.

Sharp has announced planned construction of the world's largest LCD plant, bigger than its two plants (combined) in Kameyama, Japan (one a brand-new 8th generation plant). The new plant will start turning out gobs of 40" to 60" LCD TVs in 2009.

Sharp Corp. (number 3 LCD maker) has posted a record annual profit for the fourth straight year, while Pioneer and Hitachi have been losing money on their plasma TV businesses.

Hitachi and Matsushita (Panasonic) have just extended their plasma partnership, pooling resources (R&D, production, marketing, and patents). Panasonic will start supplying Hitachi with 103" plasma panels (no home should be without one, that or Sharp's 108" LCD), while Hitachi will provide Panasonic with 85" panels (rather than each building both sizes).

More competition, better TVs, lower prices. And finally. . .

$10 broadband service this August, FYI

Okay, so this has nothing to do with digital TV, but I do read all those FCC blurbs and reports, and this one is about the recent merger between AT&T and BellSouth.

As part of a set of inducements to get FCC approval of the merger, AT&T committed to providing cheap high-speed internet service to everyone in the combined AT&T / BellSouth service area.

Not really fast broadband, but a lot faster than dial-up, and cheaper. To wit, AT&T's promise:

"3. Within six months of the Merger Closing Date, and continuing for at least 30 months from the inception of the offer, AT&T/BellSouth will offer to retail consumers in the Wireline Buildout Area, who have not previously subscribed to AT&T's or BellSouth's ADSL service, a broadband Internet access service at a speed of up to 768 Kbps at a monthly rate (exclusive of any applicable taxes and regulatory fees) of $10 per month."

An AT&T rep confirmed they are actually doing this. Sign me up.