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No Mandated Analog Pass-thru; Orlando Test

May 18, 2008

Nine months left before the end of the transition. No earth-shaking news this week, but we've got a good little selection of transition trivia. The place on the left is called Huahine.

This past week the NAB's Rehr asked Bush to acknowledge the switchover to digital TV in a public way, the courts said no to the low-power-TV lobby demand for analog pass-throughs on all converter boxes, Orlando is going to copy Wilmington's analog shut-down test (except abbreviated to several seconds), Cablevision goes on a buying spree, new LED backlights for LCDs, and a couple of other things. Read on or not.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) wants the President (Bush) to help with the educating of the American public about the DTV transition. President David Rehr (of the NAB) made the request, president to president.

He's suggesting that Bush (or Cheney! Ha!) appear in a public service announcement (I assume using a teleprompter) to put out the good word.

Rehr is also asking Bush to arrange for a transition message/link on every government web site (This one, too?), put DTV posters is all post offices, transition flyers in with government checks and payroll statements, and last but not least, get the Postal Service to publish a DTV stamp (I hope it'll be a widescreen one).

So, remember reading about the Community Broadcaster Association (CBA) filing a lawsuit to ban the sale of converter boxes that do not pass-through analog signals? (Outlawing converter boxes would help the transition, wouldn't it?) The CBA represents low-power TV stations, which do not have to shut off their analog signals next February like the regular full-power stations.

Well, the Federal District Court in Washington denied their petition, essentially saying your case has so little merit that we're going to stop you before you waste more of our time.

The CBA had argued that the All Channel Receiver Act applies to converter boxes as well as TVs. They say all converter boxes must therefore be capable of receiving both analog and digital broadcasts.

Of course digital-to-analog converter boxes can tune in channels 2 - 69; they just can't decipher analog signals on those channels.

The referenced Act was written many years ago, intended to stop the sale of analog TVs that were unable to tune in the newly added UHF channels (14 - 69), in addition to the original VHF channels 2-13.

You may not remember when UHF channels were new and had a separate rotary dial on the front of the TV to tune them, in addition to the dial for VHF channels. Early UHF channel selection knobs did not have click stops; you had to wiggle the knob back and forth, manually tuning until the picture was clearest. For awhile some TVs didn't bother adding the UHF tuning feature -- reminds me of manufacturers leaving out a digital tuner.

Er, and no remotes back then!

Anyway, the CBA says they will not appeal but will instead try again to force the FCC to ban the converter boxes. The FCC, of course, had already rebuffed them.

In the meantime, they are asking for piles of more money from Congress to pay for the low-power stations to switch over to digital. Many of those stations are already getting money; the CBA wants to expand eligibility -- they want $150,000 for each station.

The rep said -- "We figure $150,000 will get them to transition to digital quickly."

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA - the people who build the boxes) blasted the CBA's actions:

"Every industry and government entity with an interest in DTV is engaged in tireless education efforts, with the notable exception of CBA, which instead devotes its considerable energy to lawsuits, attacks on hard working government employees, and self-serving public relations campaigns.

"For the small number of Americans who receive television signals from low power stations that refuse to migrate to DTV, the CBA and its member companies have a duty to educate them about their myriad options (including 14 NTIA-certified converter boxes with pass-through capability) to continue watching free, over-the-air television. Now that all three branches of government have rejected CBA's transparent and self-serving campaign, perhaps CBA will join the hundreds of organizations and thousands of Americans working to ensure the successful transition to DTV."

Take that!

Broadcasters in Orlando, Florida, are planning their own version of an early test of the analog shut-down. On June 25 at 7:59 p.m., they will explain the test to their viewers and then shut off the analog feed for a few seconds. Not a long time, to be sure.

Anyway, people with cable or satellite or digital TVs or converter boxes will not see a black screen. They pass the test. The analog antenna people will see their pictures go black, and when it comes back, someone will tell them they failed the test.

There will be a couple of retests between then and the end of the year. Hopefully after someone fails a couple of times, the message will start to sink in. Viewers will be instructed what to do.

I bet there will be a few people who still won't get it. We shall see.

For all of you nice people who wonder what the cable company does with all that money you've been forking over for years, I have news for you.

Better programming? Better equipment? Better pay for their workers? Better returns for their stockholders?

Cablevision, at least, has been using your money to buy things. Like Newsday, the Long Island, NY, based newspaper, for the paltry sum of $650 million. They beat out a bid by Rupert Murdoch to make the acquisition.

Cablevision's CEO declined to comment on the rationale for the purchase of a newspaper, which followed hot on the heels of Cablevision's $500 million purchase of Robert Redford's Sundance Channel.

Cablevision also owns the AMC channel, News 12 (a local news cable channel), IFC, WE TV, Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks, the New York Rangers, and Radio City Music Hall.

Business must be good.

A company named Luminus Devices, Inc. has just won an award for its "PhlatLight" LED backlight for LCD displays. Their 46" backlight unit has eight light modules, each containing a single red, green and blue LED.

Compared to usual fluorescent backlights, LED backlights can be brighter and do not contain mercury. Because the Luminous Devices backlight illuminates from the edges of the display, and not the back, the LCD TV can be made thinner.

LED backlights most commonly use white LEDs; this one uses three colors. This backlight is not one of the cool LED local-dimming arrays that can enable huge contrast ratios, but any movement toward LED backlights gets us closer to that technology.

I would like to give you an update on converter box statistics, but the NTIA has not updated their site since April 21. There are now about 80 certified boxes -- NOT 80 boxes on the market.

I've been using my converter box to also send a signal to my old VCR -- composite output cables from the box to my TV, and coax RF output cable to the VCR. You can't watch one digital program and record another at the same time (without adding a second converter box), but it's useful for when a TV station preempts a network program (like NCIS) to air a local show, and puts the network show on at 3:30 a.m.

On my Insignia (Zenith) box, you have to use the "sleep" button on the remote to turn off the automatic shutoff (which by default is set for 4 hours without some sort of input), and set the record timer on the VCR as usual (except select channel 3 as the record channel on the VCR, and select the real digital channel on the converter box, before going out or to bed).

If you have a digital TV, and an analog VCR or DVR, you can get a converter box to use with that latter device for recording digital programming (watch one show and record another). You knew that.

Last, and related to the DTV transition, is the FCC's new notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) concerning the 700 MHz Block D re-auction. The 700 MHz spectrum comes from TV channels 52 - 69 that will be freed up by the switch to digital TV. All of it was auctioned off except the 20 MHz Block D chunk of bandwidth intended for interoperable first-responder communications in a perhaps uncertain public/private system arrangement. This NPRM is asking for ideas on how to change the terms of the offering to attract bigger bids.

"The 700 MHz Public/Private Partnership was designed to achieve the important public policy goal of promoting public safety interoperability, allowing police, fire and other first responders to better communicate with one another in times of emergency. Because the D Block did not meet its $1.3 billion reserve price in the 700 MHz Auction, the FCC intends to re-auction this spectrum under revised rules.

Today's Notice asks for comment, ideas, and recommendations on how to revise the rules for the D Block. First, the Notice asks whether it remains in the public interest, following the 700 MHz Auction, to retain a Public/Private Partnership between the D Block licensee and the Public Safety Broadband Licensee. The Notice also seeks comment on various potential modifications to the current rules governing the Public/Private Partnership. For instance, the FCC asks whether only entities that provide public safety services, as defined in the Communications Act, are eligible to use the public safety spectrum portion of the shared network established by the Partnership."

The Congressional hearing on this subject a few weeks ago revealed inadequate planning and oversight in imagining how the model would realistically work. Some wishful thinking, perhaps.

My own take on the longstanding problem is that local police and fire departments were running little independent fiefdoms, and didn't want other agencies on their private communications networks. Second, there was no national leadership willing to drive a resolution to the problem using available resources (i.e., politically incorrect stepping on toes). Third, once new spectrum was made available, and there was a Federal handout to local authorities, including a pile of money for new radios, etc., Congress declined to appropriate funds to build-out a national emergency communications infrastructure. Briar patch.

They said, let a private company build it for us, and pay us at least $1.3 billion for the privilege, and we'll let them use some of the bandwidth for their own purposes.

What a deal!

Until next week . . .