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One Year To Go!

February 17, 2008

With one year to go before the end of the transition, the buzz is going mainstream. There was a good piece about the DTV transition on Friday evening's ABC news, including information about converter boxes and a warning about retailers trying to upsell consumers into buying HDTVs when all they wanted was a converter box (this picked up from the PIRG study - see below).

I will be looking for more such pieces on morning and evening news shows today - this one-year pre-anniversary (not sure what to call it).

There were clarifications on converter coupon distribution from the government this past week. They will start sending coupons out this week, apparently cautiously at first. Look to late February before the bulk of coupon applicants start seeing coupons in their mail boxes.

The other big news from this past week has been the series of high profile announcements (Best Buy, Netflix, WalMart, et al) about the abandonment of HD-DVD, including reports that Toshiba will throw in the towel within "weeks." Blu-ray is the winner; it's everything but official.

There was only one Congressional hearing on the DTV transition this past week; the Senate hearing was postponed. The House hearing was held as scheduled on Wednesday -- the committee members had little to say and only sub-committee chairman Markey and the ranking minority member were able to ask Panel 2 industry witnesses questions. Senate hearings are more lively.

Panel 1 (government) witnesses were FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and acting NTIA-head Meredith Baker.

In Martin's opening statement he - 1) noted that 95% of full-power broadcasters were operating a digital channel (as if that was good - 5% are long-delinquent), 2) reported that the FCC was considering the NAB's "safe harbor" consumer education plan for incorporation into the FCC'c consumer education initiative and hoped to complete that regulation quickly (we've been hearing that for months), and 3) proposed a 2012 deadline for low-power and translator broadcast stations to make the switch to digital (A formal FCC proposed rule on this is still pending. Martin has written a letter to the TV industry asking them to help with the low-power/translator station transition to digital, including letting those stations operate on a full-power station's subchannel where feasible.).

He was asked about the digital signal coverage area shortfall (the difference in footprint between analog and digital signal contours - something discussed in my past columns). The discrepancy will be more significant before all stations have reached their full digital power equipment installations. Martin did not know how many people would be affected, but acknowledged that up to five percent of over-the-air viewers' antennas might have to be upgraded in order to reliably receive a solid digital signal.

Much of this could be attributed to the "cliff" effect - the perfect picture/no picture digital dichotomy. That's versus the analog reception model wherein the picture degrades gradually as the signal weakens. If you're on the fringe, you might be able to get a barely (hazy) watchable analog picture but no digital picture.

This effect was raised as a potential problem with people who buy converter boxes and get no picture, when they could at least get a snowy analog picture. They would be inclined to take the box back to the store, saying it didn't work, when the problem was with their too-low-gain antenna. For example, using rabbit ears when they really needed an outdoor antenna. Or, using rabbit ears (good for VHF channels) when most digital signals are on higher-band UHF frequencies, which requires a fundamentally different design antenna (bowtie, loop, etc.).

In any case, there will be some irate consumers in need of technical assistance ("But it's worked fine for 40 years!").

NTIA's Meredith Baker had some stats on the converter box program (for use with analog-only TVs):

"To date, approximately 65 percent of the requests have been received through our Web site, 34 percent through our telephone channel, and less than 1 percent of the requests by mail and fax. Approximately 89 percent of the household requests are for the maximum number of two coupons."

Coupon requests have now leveled out to about 61,000 per day.

"To date, NTIA has accepted more than 2.4 million household requests for more than 4.7 million coupons, representing 20 percent of the program's base funding. Approximately 47 percent of these households identified themselves as fully reliant on over-the-air television."

Some committee members were concerned about viewers of low-power and translator stations, which will continue to broadcast in analog after February 17, 2009. While there are now three models of converter boxes with analog pass-throughs (analog signals from the antenna are passed-through to the TV's internal analog receiver when the box is turned off, or when a switch on the box is flipped, so that the viewer can watch analog channels, as well as digital channels. Converter boxes contain only a digital receiver, while digital TVs contain both analog and digital receivers.)

Baker said she was encouraging manufacturers to incorporate analog pass-through in new models of boxes, and to clearly label their boxes as to any analog pass-through feature they may have.

Congressman Stearns (TX) said that Best Buy would be carrying only one model of converter box. He didn't elaborate, and this was not discussed further. If true at the outset, will this continue to be the case throughout the year? The one model would be Best Buy's own Insignia brand, made by LG.

Stearns also explained how a converter box without an analog pass-through could be connected to pass an analog signal: 1) connect a splitter to the cable from the antenna, 2) run one short cable from the splitter to the converter box and another short cable to the antenna input on the TV, and 3) connect the composite output cables from the converter box to the TV's composite inputs (yellow, white, red). For older TVs having only an RF coax input, the box's RF output would be used and an A-B switch would be added between the box and TV (bypass cable and box's output cable into switch; output into TV).

There was some discussion of the 90-day expiration for coupons. If people cannot find suitable converter boxes within that time period, they will not be able to get replacement coupons under the current rules. At the urging of some members of Congress, NTIA is looking into whether and under what circumstances people with expired coupons may apply for new ones.

Panel 2 (industry) witnesses were:

Cable-guy McSlarrow complained about FCC Chairman Martin's forever chart showing cable rates skyrocketing over the last ten years while all other media rates dropped.

Broadcaster lobbyist Rehr bragged about how well they've been educating the public.

Community Broadcaster Association's Bruno complained about the bum deal low-power stations are getting - can't get no respect.

Echostar Technology's Jackson bragged about their $40 converter box - free with a coupon!

IBM's Romeo reported on the converter box program; IBM has to contract to run that program.

Radio Shack's Harris said they would be ready on February 22 to redeem converter box coupons. They will have a telephone order line - (877) RSDTV4U - ready on March 1 for converter boxes.

Last Wednesday the U.S. federation of state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) released its report on how well electronics retailers are informing their customers about the DTV transition. The report - "Mixed Signals: How TV Retailers Mislead Consumers on the Digital Television (DTV) Transition" - documented a survey of "secret shoppers" who visited 132 electronics stores in ten states to determine if America's big electronics retailers are properly preparing their customers for the digital transition.

What they found is not encouraging. Retail sales clerks are providing inaccurate or misleading information about the upcoming digital transition.

  • 81% of sales staff provided inaccurate information about converter boxes.
  • 78% of sales staff provided inaccurate information about the coupon program.
  • 42% of sales staff provided inaccurate information about the transition date.
  • 20% of sales staff tried to up-sell surveyors to digital TVs or upscale converter boxes.

FCC Commissioner Adelstein had this to say about the report:

"If young, tech savvy retail workers don't get it, imagine how your grandma who's owned the same TV for 30 years is going to cope. Imagine the challenge that awaits the elderly, those with disabilities, the low income, non-English speakers, and people in rural America.

"Today's report underscores the Federal government's failure to have a real national DTV plan to coordinate the efforts of government and the private sector. The message that consumers are getting from retailers is mixed, distorted, and at times, inaccurate."

Some new information on Panasonic's forthcoming DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player has surfaced. It's for the European version, but the specs are expected to be the same as the machine the U.S. gets.

Good stuff. Internal decoding for Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio and also can bitstream output the compressed signals for those formats to your new A/V receiver for decoding.

Sony will be detailing its new products during its line show - last week of February. We'll see if they have anything to say about their two Sapphire BD player prototypes displayed at CES 2008.

Until next week. Will coupons arrive?