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Sharp Sues Samsung; FCC Stuff

August 12, 2007

A few odds and ends this week . . .

You may recall that I've noted that Sharp was the pioneer of LCD TV technology and is still the industry leader. Their latest LCD panels have the best contrast ratios, viewing angles, response times, etc. Apparently makes them worth copying.

Sharp has now sued Samsung, alleging that the Korean company has been violating several of its LCD patents. They've been in patent licensing negotiations since last year as a way of resolving Samsung's alleged infringements, without success.

Sony and Samsung have a joint venture to produce large LCD panels, so its likely that this litigation could also impact Sony. Certainly neither Samsung nor Sony would have to stop making TVs using Sharp's protected technologies, assuming Sharp wins its legal action. Samsung would likely have to pay damages and licensing fees, as determined by the court--that seems to be the real issue.

Will this affect set prices? In a normal market, maybe, but the flat-panel TV market is anything but normal. There's the usual fluctuations in LCD panel supply, fierce competition between LCD makers, and an even-fiercer battle between plasma and LCD for market share. (plasma seems to be losing)

Prices will go down. The manufacturers that can lower costs faster are the ones who will survive.

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I was expecting to tell you what sort of comments the FCC received on its getting-the-broadcasters-ready-for-the-transition proposed rules, but they extended the comment period by a week. It seems that the Association of Federal Communications Consulting Engineers requested a 21 day extension of time "to fully review the technical details raised in the Third DTV Periodic NPRM and develop comprehensive comments."

The FCC only gave them seven days, however, so as not to delay preparations leading to the end of the transition. There apparently is not an extra two weeks in the schedule to spare. That's how tight the remaining time is--with eighteen months left. What they said: "It is essential, however, that the industry and Commission remain on track to complete this transition by February 17, 2009."

As they say, down to the wire. . .

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One of the factors in granting the above extension of time was the FCC's release of the final table of digital channel assignments just last week. This in the final word on what digital channel numbers 1800+ TV stations will use after analog broadcasts are shut off. Only 13 stations are still up in the air for various reasons.

Most stations will continue to use their old analog channel number to identify themselves after the transition is complete, even though the channel they are actually broadcasting on will likely be different. You will continue to select stations by punching the old channel number on your remote. Your digital TV is now smart enough to know which actual channel to go to (via PSIP metadata in the broadcast stream).

The only reason you might want to know the actual channel number is for selecting an antenna. Most digital channels will be in the UHF band after the transition (14-51), so you would want to use a UHF antenna if the actual broadcast frequency is UHF, even if the nominal channel identifier might be a VHF channel (2-13). VHF and UHF antennas are different, although some UHF antennas will also work for the higher VHF channels (say, 10 - 13).

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The FCC's newly re-chartered Consumer Advisory Committee met for the first time on Friday. Not too much action, as expected. Many of the members were not up to speed on the transition and so there was some educating of the members going on, which will continue through their November 2 meeting.

In particular, there was a lot of ignorance about the program details for the government-subsidized digital-to-analog converter boxes; to wit, they were unfamiliar with the DTV transition law's requirements and NTIA's regulations that established technical specifications for the boxes.

They're supposed to be advising the FCC on how to educate consumers about the DTV transition. How shall I put it? They did not hit the ground running.

Reflecting the makeup of the committee, there was a lot of time spent on the problems of certain segments of the population who they believed would have particular trouble coping with new technology -- minorities, the elderly, the disabled, the poor, the rural. The oft-cited cliches were whether you could set the clock on your VCR and whether you were someone's grandmother. Methinks these issues have no proper stereotypes.

Working groups were established: 1) DTV transition and outreach; 2) Broadband for Under-served Populations; 3) - Disability Issues; and 4) Consumer/media/wireless issues.

There was some transition news that came out of the meeting:

Tony Wilhelm, the NTIA's converter box consumer education guy, gave the committee NTIA's spin on how the coupon program was doing. He first elaborated on how wonderful everything was--how great the NTIA was doing, how great the industry was doing, how great the program would turn out, yadda, yadda.

He said the contractor that will be chosen later this month to run the program will also develop the consumer education approach (how to spend the $5 million Congress gave the NTIA for that task). They will only have four-and-a-half months to do everything before the coupon program starts on January 1. Good luck!

It was clear that the business-friendly NTIA is giving free rein to the TV industry to have their way with American consumers.

Jack Sanders, representing the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), reported on their consumer education efforts (and those of the industry's DTV Transition Coalition). They are concerned about the old, the poor, the rural. They are conducting research in order to design an effective message (don't want to rush into these things); they have set up nationwide focus groups to find out about viewers; they are commisioning tracking surveys to assess the success of their education efforts (once they get started); they have briefed reporters, and are planning to do this in all states; they have a web site.

He said public service announcements are important; they plan to produce 30- and 60-second on-air announcements which they will distribute to member TV stations "no later than December" (No word on when they will be aired. They've been working on these for some time; four more months to December. Don't want to rush these things.) They are planning to produce a half-hour DTV transition program. They are planning crawls (text messages that run across the bottom or top of the screen), and are "consulting" on how to use them. They have sent sent "tool-kits" to members of Congress for constituent education messages.

Sanders noted that there were now over 140 organizations in the Coalition.

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Next week we should have those industry comments on the FCC's proposals to get the broadcast industry's transition preparations kickstarted. Also on Wednesday the NTIA will finally be announcing the contractor that will run the converter box coupon program--educating the public about the program, certifying retailers to sell approved boxes and redeem coupons, and approving eligible converter boxes. Big job.