ATSC: What Do You See?
Ordinarily, when I attend a conference, I’m the one asking all the questions of the various vendors exhibiting and otherwise present there. This past January’s Consumer Electronics Show was different. Very different. At some point during the course of at least a dozen meetings, I was asked how I thought the U.S. digital television market (more) would evolve over the coming year-plus. My interrogators were semiconductor suppliers of tuners, demodulators and audio/video decoders, along with manufacturers of systems assembled from these silicon building blocks. And specifically, many of them were curious about my thoughts regarding the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s DTV converter coupon program. I daresay the upcoming NAB show will probably be more of the same!
As my esteemed colleague at Test & Measurement World recently pointed out, the scheduled NTSC shutoff is a year (minus a month, a week, and two days!) away, on February 17, 2009. Admittedly, I’ve been skeptical in the past that this cutoff date would hold, influenced by factors such as poor reception and broadcast flag fair-use threats. Admittedly, too, my pessimism under-estimated the influence of a $19.5 billion spectrum auction in moving the analog-to-digital conversion along!
For purposes of this particular post, I want to specifically discuss the DTV converter box coupon program, for which the NTIA was allotted $1.5 billion by the U.S. Congress. The program’s intent is to ensure that legacy analog television sets are still able to receive OTA (over-the-air) ‘free’ (i.e. advertising-supported) network television broadcasts after the NTSC ’sunset’. The program is a two-phase rollout; the first $990 million ‘bucket’ comprises $5 million for public education, $160 million for program administration, and the remainder for two $40 converter box coupons per eligible household. If ~22.5 million coupons don’t satisfy the pent-up market demand, the funding spigot further opens to the tune of an additional $510 million.
So what of that supposed pent-up market demand, which was the crux of my CES queries? It’s not at all clear to me, frankly, how many folks will end up using their converter box coupons, regardless of how many requests the NTIA receives. I’d very much welcome your thoughts on this topic, as would my CES contacts! Before you respond, though, consider the following variables:
- Anyone who’s already bought a TV with a built-in ATSC tuner isn’t a candidate
- Similarly, folks who already receive their TV programming via non-OTA sources, such as a cable, satellite dish or IPTV connection, aren’t applicable
- Locations like mine with geographic reception limitations (both too-near-overload and too-far-fade distance, signal-blocking and multipath-cultivating intermediaries, etc) can’t benefit from OTA transmissions, either. Keep in mind that, due to digital TV’s ‘all-or-nothing’ characteristics, your current ability to tune in a fuzzy NTSC signal is no guarantee of the ability to tune in a solid ATSC signal a year from now.
- Finally, befitting their analog television tether focus, and to keep costs down, converter box candidates for the NTIA coupons cannot output a digital video signal, nor can they output an analog video signal with resolution better than 480i (translating to a likely low-quality RF tether). I suspect that when informed of this fact, whether through their own research or via an upsell-hungry salesperson, at least some consumers will toss the coupons and go with a high-def converter box upgrade (if their ATSC tuner-less display accepts and displays high-def signals) or alternatively just disconnect the roof-mount antenna and snag a cable, satellite or IPTV subscription instead.
Speaking of ‘keeping costs down’, an excellent article in the February issue of the always-excellent Broadcast Engineering magazine taught me that the NTSC-to-ATSC transition may result in a net sum channel reception loss for some viewers. I didn’t realize, until I read it, that the February 17, 2009 analog phase-out only affects 1812 full-power broadcasters across the United States. Roughly 2600 Class A and other low-power TV transmitters are not required to terminate their analog signals, nor are ~4600 full-power TV translators.
So what’s the problem? For cost-slimming reasons, the NTIA-approved converter boxes are not required to embed NTSC tuner functionality, even though the silicon inside them is often already both ATSC- and NTSC-capable, nor must they integrate A/B RF bypass switches. Envision, therefore, a likely scenario in which a consumer disconnects the coax feeding his or her television and inserts a converter box inline between the roof-mount antenna and display. Voila…no more LPTV, and no more TV translator reception, either.
I’ll close with a coupon suggestion. For those of you interested in snagging one (or two), keep in mind that they expire 90 days after your receive them. Therefore, I’d recommend you wait to submit your application. NTIA-approved converter boxes are currently selling for $50 and up. Invariably, prices will drop going forward, especially in conjunction with Black Friday and other upcoming holiday promotions. When they hit the free-after-coupon threshold, I’ll likely snag ‘em…and soon afterward, you’ll likely see one dissected in EDN.
p.s…appropriately, yesterday was the 54th anniversary of the production of RCA’s first color television.