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Miscellaneous, Etc.

December 9, 2007

The Community Broadcasters Association (CBA) has taken issue with the NTIA's technical specs for digital-to-analog converter boxes, claiming that boxes conforming to the basic required specs will not pass through analog signals.

The CBA is the lobby group for low-power TV stations, which do not have to broadcast a digital signal now. They will continue broadcasting in analog after February 17, 2009, unlike all full-power stations. The FCC has not yet set a date for low-power stations to switch from analog to digital.

Hence, consumers who buy converter boxes that do not have the optional analog pass-through feature will not be able to view low-power stations unless they disconnect their converter box whenever they want to receive an analog signal.

By law, TV "receivers" have to be capable of displaying all TV signals. The CBA has petitioned the FCC to ensure that all boxes can pass analog signals. It may be that all that is needed is a couple of splitters. Some converter boxes will be able to pass through analog signals (e.g. Samsung's).

Of course, it will not only be people who watch low-power stations who will be affected. The digital signal of many full-power TV stations is not yet strong enough to reach all of their analog viewers. This is especially true for those stations whose final digital channel is different from their interim channel. If this is the case, many viewers with converter boxes who watch mostly digital channels may want to rely on the analog signals for some stations.

In some cases digital signals may be below full power even after the transition ends, when there will be no analog fallback.

Just one of the glitches we should expect before all this is done.

The FCC on Tuesday held a digital television consumer education workshop focusing on minority and non-English-speaking communities. It lasted about three hours.

"The purpose of the Workshop is to provide an opportunity for interested parties to discuss the challenges associated with ensuring that minority communities and non-English-speakers receive and can act on information regarding the upcoming transition and to explore ways to develop coordinated consumer education activities."

The target population segments were African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans. It was interesting that representatives of each of these groups expressed particular concern for the seniors within their demographic.

Unfortunately, I didn't hear anything that gave me hope that much would come out of the effort. There was so much blind-leading-the-blind that I was too discouraged to rehash the details (lucky you). The people at the table were executives, not technocrats.

On the positive side, Univision's real efforts on education were showcased. The representative of a San Francisco TV station that airs native-language programming for a number of the local Asian communities discussed the benefit of digital multi-casting to their operations.

Commissioners Deborah Tate and Robert McDowell made welcoming speeches that were little more than fluff. Unlike Copps and Adelstein, neither one of them has been seriously involved in DTV transition issues.

When one of the panelists noted that his constituents complained that the government allowed the continued sale of analog TVs during the last few years, FCC Consumer Chief Cathy Seidel responded that those analog TVs are a real bargain now, and with the addition of a converter box would work post-transition. Of course some digital CRT TVs can be had now for about the same cost, but both of these have the 4:3 narrow-screen display that does not match digital widescreen programming. Still a bargain?

She seemed not to be aware of the history of attempts to ban analog TVs going back to 2001, in all cases beat back by intense industry lobbying.

She seemed also unaware of how digital TV channels are selected. When the question of how consumers could tell whether they had a digital or analog TV came up, she suggested they see if they could find their owner's manual, or contact the manufacturer, or she said they could call the TV station to find out what digital channel they were transmitting on and then select that channel (if they got a picture, then the set is digital).

Of course digital channels are normally selected using a suffix added to the station's analog channel number, even though the actual channel used for the digital signal is different. For example, the primary digital channel for a station broadcasting on analog channel 7 would be selected by punching in either "7-1" or "7.1", even though the station might be using channel 53 for its digital signal. PSIP metadata transmitted with the signal tells the TV which actual channel to tune.

So if the remote control on your TV has a "-" or "." button in its numeric keypad, the set is digital. This method works whether you get your programming via antenna or cable or satellite. No need to write to the manufacturer, even if you actually knew the address.

Under pressure from Congress, the FCC has started to make public a list of draft final rules that it is circulating internally. Among the items are two I've been waiting to see the light of day; a third important item apparently hasn't even made it to draft form.

First, a draft of the Commission's Consumer Education Initiative's final rules has been circulating among the Commissioners since October 15, without agreement. If they wait long enough, any Report and Order that comes out will be moot.

Second, an FCC staff-prepared, Chairman-approved Report and Order on the Third Periodic Review of the Commission's Rules and Policies Affecting the Conversion to Digital Television began circulation among the other Commissioners (beside the Chairman) on December 4. These are the rules that tell TV broadcasters what they need to do (and can't do) to switch over their transmission facilities from analog to digital.

The broadcast industry's MSTV technical body has visited (ex parte) the FCC again and refined their position on the 3rd review proposed rules. For stations with top-mount analog antennas and side-mount interim digital antennas, MSTV is proposing that the digital side mount antennas continue in service post-transition at current levels of digital coverage (less than analog coverage). The stations would be given up to a year after the end of the transition to replace their top-mount analog antennas with digital replacements, and achieve full digital coverage.

This would mean no early loss of analog service, but after February 2009 over-the-air viewers on the edges of coverage would not receive any signal from that station for up to a year. Seems like a bum deal for viewers (saves the TV station a bundle of cash).

The third (missing from the list) item is a draft Report and Order on next-generation bi-directional cable interface standards. Lobbyists on both sides of this contentious proposal are still at it -- that's the cable industry versus the consumer electronics industry, each pushing their own standards.

There has been some angst within the Commission that has been bubbling out, and is now becoming somewhat rancorous. It has to do with Chairman Kevin Martin's management style. There are reports and complaints that he is not reaching out to the views of the other Commissioners early on in the process.

The Chairman directs the staff, while the other four Commissioners get to vote on the Chairman's proposed actions. Apparently the Chairman is not asking the others to help set priorities.

That may be why these DTV transition actions are taking so long to get out, and perhaps why some of them are mostly mush.

Last Tuesday DirecTV and EchoStar made a joint ex parte presentation to the FCC's Media Bureau explaining the challenges they're facing for the switchover to digital TV. Of course they already are digital but they still need to switch from local broadcasters' analog feeds to digital, and they can't do that until the individual broadcasters are ready.

"As an industry, one or both DBS providers offer local broadcast stations in 180 markets today. In each of those markets, a local receive facility has been established by one or both companies. Each facility is automated and operated by remote control from DIRECTV and EchoStar's respective uplink facilities: there is, therefore, no permanent staff located in each market. As a result, to prepare for the transition, both companies will need to send engineers to each market to replace analog equipment with digital equipment for each local broadcaster. The scope of this challenge should not be underestimated: DIRECTV will need to switch out equipment for up to 1139 broadcast stations, EchoStar for 1361 broadcast stations. Given the magnitude of this undertaking, it is clear that a smooth digital transition will require advanced coordination between DBS providers and all local broadcasters."

What they want the FCC to do is to require TV stations to detail their transition plans by February 1, 2008, so that they can schedule their equipment modifications. The idea is to get it all done before analog signals are cut off.

This is part of the FCC's 3rd Periodic Review DTV transition rulemaking.

In an effort to lay groundwork for cable companies to implement switched digital video, the cable industry's CableLabs has announced new specifications for an external interface for one-way CableCARD products that would give them some two-way functionality.

I'm not sure how this development will play into the FCC's pending bi-directional cable interface rules, if at all. Those rules will set a standard for new TVs and set-top-boxes that holds the promise of pretty much eliminating cable boxes for future TVs. Plug and play -- will work with any cable system in the country once all the pieces fall into place. That's the idea.

Switched digital video permits cable companies to send to your TV only those channels you actually are watching (versus all of the ones in your tier) on a dynamic real-time basis. Saves them a boatload of bandwidth they can use to sell you other stuff.

Until next week . . .

On Tuesday the NTIA will issue a status report on the converter box program. With just three weeks until the nominal legislated start of the program, I expect that John-Kneuer-replacement Meredith Baker will be more forthright about the NTIA-specified three month delay in the actual start date.

On Thursday the Senate holds another FCC oversight hearing with all five Commissioners testifying.