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GAO Reports on Transition Status; More

May 25, 2008

The Government Accountability Office just released a report on the status of the DTV transition: "Digital Television Transition: Majority of Broadcasters Are Prepared for the DTV Transition, but Some Technical and Coordination Issues Remain." I have more below, but the title covers most of it.

Also this week I have an update on work toward the broadcast mobile TV service, new Sharp LCDs (initially for the Japanese market), some Blu-ray player and TV tech news, and more consumer comments for the FCC.

The NTIA still hasn't updated its April 21 converter box application/redemption statistics. There are now 83 certified boxes, 18 with analog pass-through.


The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the "congressional watchdog," GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.

Another investigative agency under Congress' umbrella is the Congressional Research Service (part of the Library of Congress)--they respond to requests from legislators for all sorts of information in support of public policymaking. Both are quite good. -- Just a little civics lesson.

Anyway, back to GAO's DTV report. It was prepared late 2007 and early 2008, before the Form 387 transition status reports were submitted to the FCC by all broadcasters. The GAO conducted their own web-based survey; two-thirds of broadcasters responded, so the data is not definitive, but likely is representative.

The body of the full report is about 22 pages with lots of charts, if you want to look at it. Otherwise, here's an edited summary:

This requested report examines (1) the status of broadcast stations in transitioning to digital, (2) the extent to which broadcast stations are encountering issues, and (3) the actions the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has taken to guide broadcasters in the digital transition.

Television broadcast stations have made substantial progress in transitioning to digital television, with the vast majority already transmitting a digital signal. Approximately 91 percent of the 1,122 full-power stations responding to our survey are currently transmitting a digital signal, with approximately 68 percent of survey respondents transmitting their digital signal at full strength and 68 percent transmitting their digital signal on the channel from which they will broadcast after the transition date.

However, some stations still need to complete construction of their final digital facilities, and others need to relocate their digital channel to complete the transition. For example, 23 percent of survey respondents indicated they will be moving their digital channel to their analog channel. In addition, other stations need to move to a completely new channel.

While almost all full-power stations are already broadcasting a digital signal, 9 percent of stations responding to our survey indicated that they are not currently broadcasting digitally. Almost all of these stations, however, indicated that they plan to have their digital signal operational by February 17, 2009.

Over 13 percent of stations responding to our survey reported that they need to install or relocate their digital or analog antennas. Some of these stations still need to order equipment, such as antennas, to build their final digital facilities.


Broadcast mobile TV takes another step toward commercial reality. Since my April 20 update, the Open Mobile Video Coalition has recommended to the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC - the digital broadcast TV standards folks) that a blending of two of the competing proposals be adopted as the baseline for the new ATSC M/H (mobile/handheld) TV standard.

The two consortiums are 1) the Korean LG Electronics with the U.S. broadcast equipment maker Harris Corp, and 2) Samsung (also Korean) partnered with the multi-national electronics firm Rohde & Schwarz (headquartered in Germany).

Expect ATSC approval of an M/H standard in October.


Sharp has unveiled a slew of new LCD TVs for the Japanese market.

The Japanese model designations (D-Series, G-Series and R-Series) are different than those used in the U.S., but the technology is what is interesting.

Sharp is claiming the world's highest LCD dynamic contrast ratio for the R-series of 20,000:1. A little odd, since the Sharp U.S. SE94 series touted a 27,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio (different than the lower native contrast ratio). Contrast ratios for the purposes of marketing must be taken with a grain of salt, but I expect they have made some incremental improvement in any case.

The other series have a 15,000:1 dynamic contrast ratio, and that figure is certainly better than the older lesser model performance (10,000:1). We'll have to see what they look like when they come out (this summer in Japan).

The sets now use a 12-bit processor, and incorporate LED backlights (not local dimming yet -- when that arrives, there will be a huge increase in contrast ratio). Sizes range from 26" to 65".

I'm not sure whether the cosmetics will make it to the U.S., but the new sets come in a small array of colors -- black, white, red, and brown, with choice depending on the series.


In Blu-ray player news:

The Japanese OEM consumer electronics manufacturer Funai is coming out with a less expensive Blu-ray player that will be sold under the Magnavox brand name by Wal-Mart beginning late May for $300. The same player with Best Buy's Insignia branding will go on sale in that store in July for $350. That's marketing for you.

Going upscale a little, Denon has announced a new value Blu-ray player (DVD-1800BD) to be available in October at an MSRP of $749. Burr-Brown digital-to-analog conversion, etc.

Now that Blu-ray technology is starting to mature, Panasonic has developed a single-chip processor to replace a crowd of separate chips that have taken care of all that signal processing. The end result will be significantly smaller, use less power, be cheaper and will require less labor to make a player.

It complies with Profile 2.0 standards (BD-live), supports dual screen output (e.g. 3D), and all lossless audio formats. It updates Panasonic's already excellent UniPhier signal processing technology.

Makes for a better machine at a better price.

Alas, we're going to have to wait awhile for players with this chip -- I'm guessing late this year at the earliest. For sure it will be in Panasonic BD players announced at CES 2009 in January.


Samsung is doing the same chip reduction for its HDTVs. They just showed a 40" LCD that uses just two source driver integrated circuits, instead of the usual six source drivers and three gate drivers. When these circuits find their way into mass production, TV prices will potentially drop further.


Samsung showed off other technology advances in the form of an 82" LCD "ultra-definition" prototype TV. It boasts a resolution of 3,840 x 2,160 (four times the pixels of a Full-HD display). The big set has a refresh rate of 120 Hz, and uses a red, green, and blue LED backlight that expands the color gamut to 150% NTSC.

Anything over 100% is not supported yet by our current TV standards, but very cool nevertheless.


In his statement on the GAO report, Senator Inouye had some concerns about consumer readiness for some of the technical details that are never mentioned in the happy, simple education messages we have seen so far. Among his comments:

"For example, some stations may need to significantly reduce or even stop analog broadcasts in advance of February 17, 2009. Such early termination may confuse consumers and leave them scrambling for converter boxes before the end of the transition. The FCC will need to work very closely with broadcasters to ensure consumers are educated about how the decisions of their local broadcasters will impact them.

"Finally, I would note my ongoing and deep concern that while industry is, at a minimum, fully informed of the upcoming transition and aware of the potential pitfalls, the same cannot be said for consumers. Far too many Americans are unaware of or unprepared for February 17, 2009. As this report demonstrates, there is no one-size fits all message that will adequately educate consumers. It is imperative that all stakeholders in the DTV transition, both public and private, work together to ensure that local communities are fully informed and prepared for the transition, and that no consumer is left in the dark."

I've got a couple more consumer complaints filed in the FCC's consumer education regulatory docket this past week. These comments are from people who are sophisticated enough to find their way through the FCC's byzantine web site to send an electronic comment. If they're confused, how must the unwashed masses be faring?

This one from a guy in Dallas:

"I have read the purposed 'Consumer Education Initiative'. I think it is a great idea but I did not read anything about DTV signal interference! I have a converter box and getting interference/interuptions I did not recieve on the analog system. This definitely need a big part of the initiative education."

The problem of poor digital signal reception by some consumers has been raised at length at the FCC and in Congressional hearings, but the TV industry has kept quiet about the problem in their education messages. Many, or even most people will not have problems, but a significant minority of broadcast TV viewers will. There are several causes.

Many broadcasters will be changing digital channels at the end of the transition and are now transmitting on their interim digital channel at reduced signal strength. Because many TV stations are changing transmit antenna type and/or location, the digital coverage patterns sometimes are not a good match for what they were getting with their analog service.

As digital signals get weaker, the picture goes from perfect to perfectly obliterated. At the margin, the picture will be good one moment, will pixelize the next, will freeze the next, and then be perfect again. Or the picture will be there and the audio will drop out. With analog, you'll get a crappy picture as the signal strength weakens, but you'll still get a picture.

If your analog picture is marginal, you may need a better antenna for digital, or change from an indoor antenna to a roof-mounted antenna. A lot depends on what your local TV stations are doing and when they are doing it. Check the TV industry web-site www.antennaweb.org. You input your zip code and it recommends the type of antenna you'll need to receive the various broadcast stations in your area. They also give you the distance and direction from your home to the broadcast antennas.

They're now also giving separate recommendations for before and after the end of the transition for stations that will be changing channels, and therefore likely increasing signal strength after the end of the transition, when a smaller antenna might work okay.

You'll also want to check the actual broadcast channel they are using -- whether VHF or UHF -- to select the proper antenna design. This information is also provided by antennaweb.org.

Digital channels are sensitive to the aim of the antenna. A few degrees can sometimes make a big difference, especially at marginal signal strength.

The FCC has prepared a publication on the use of antennas for digital broadcasts. A worthwhile read if you rely on an antenna.

Okay, the second consumer comment is a converter box coupon complaint from a woman in San Francisco:

"I wonder why I only have 90 days to use the conversion box coupon. I must use it by 07/29/08, 7 months before I am able to use it. If I can't get another or replace the ones I have, why do they expire before the conversion date? Won't the warranty expire before I know whether it works? What if my tv breaks in December and I have a 5 month old box I can no longer use?

"The coupon should be good until 2/2009, when the conversion happens. Please explain the rush for me to buy. Won't the price come down later if I wait. It seems like the FCC is in on the scam with dealers to make a fast sale to those who acted early to get the coupon and then became locked in to an early and possibly expensive buy. If these are the only coupons I can ever get, why can't I use them when I want instead of when I am told I must, without a valid reason for the expiration?"

This is a classic example of the government and TV industry's education campaign's failure by simplification--the desire to put the whole message into a sound-bite. The usual spiel is that TV is switching over from analog to digital on February 17, 2009. In fact, full-power TV stations were required to start broadcasting over a second, digital channel years ago. What they will do at the end of the transition is to turn off their old analog channel. Many people have already stopped watching analog TV channels.

Someone should have made it clear to this woman that she can start using her new converter box right away, and reap the advantages. And the dealers certainly don't want to sell her a converter box if they can possibly sell her a new TV, so no scam to sell converter boxes. She's not going to get locked into an expensive buy, since with the coupon the box will cost her $10 to $20 (although she might be able to find a cheaper box if she waits, but it might not perform as well).

And there would have been no rush for her to buy if she wanted to wait. She should have just not applied for a coupon until toward the end of the year, as she said, just in case her analog TV breaks in December.

It should also be made clear to consumers why the coupons expire in 90 days.

Congress provided enough money for about 30 million coupon redemptions. If coupons did not expire, then after 30 million coupons had been mailed out, the government would have to stop issuing them to new applicants (who might really need them) -- even if half of the people who had received coupons decided not to use them after all. That might happen if the coupon was requested by mistake (say, with the belief that even cable subscribers needed them), or if the person decided to buy a digital TV instead of using a converter box for his old TV.

With a 90-day expiration, if a coupon has not been redeemed by the end of that period, the NTIA can put that $40 back into play for new applicants.

Current projections for coupon requests are for significantly more than 30 million at the high end of the range.

The NTIA and Congress are anxiously awaiting data on redemption rates that will be available this summer for the first millions of coupons issued (how many people actually used their coupons, and how many decided they didn't need them after all). That data will give the government a better idea of how many coupons they will actually have to fund, and whether Congress will need to appropriate more money before the February crunch.


Until next week . . .

The following item will be considered at the FCC's June 12 meeting: "DTV: An Order on Clarification with respect to Petitions for Reconsideration of Clarification of the Third Periodic Review of the Commission's Rules and Policies Affecting the Conversion to Digital Television."

Got that?

By way of clarification, the item is likely about an FCC requirement for broadcasters to fully implement a program update provision of the Program System and Information Protocol (PSIP). We're talking about real-time updating of electronic program guides -- they rely on accurate PSIP data.

The ATSC standard mandated by the FCC would ensure that schedule/timing information on programs be kept current notwithstanding, for example, sports programs running over their scheduled times (does that ever happen?).

Broadcasters have been lobbying for a one-year postponement of that requirement.