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CEA Panel Says DTV Transition Is Set For Feb. 2009 Deadline

While it may seem a little late to get started, a major and hopefully coordinated educational effort to get consumers prepared for the end of analog TV broadcasting is being planned by TV manufacturers, broadcasters and cable operators, according to panelists at the “Get Ready For the End of Analog TV” supersession held during at International CES.

Panelists at the session, moderated by Gary Arlen of Arlen Communications, were John Taylor, LG Electronics; David Donovan of Maximum Service TV, an engineering-oriented association of major broadcasters; and Kyle McSlarrow of the National Cable TV Association. While they each had a different focus on the issue, they all agreed there were still some technical and procedural issues to be resolved to ensure a smooth transition to the all-digital era.

They also were in accord on the view that regardless of how major an educational program may be, there will still be consumers who will be surprised on Feb. 17, 2009 when their TVs stop getting off-air programming.

One major open issue is the final standard for the set-top digital-to-analog TV signal converter box to be issued by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration. Taylor said LG is among companies that have already developed “inexpensive” prototype boxes, and indicated it should have at minimum such features as remote, a simple program guide and a smart antenna interface. The actual selling price, he indicated, will depend on what features the NTIA mandates.

Related to that is the NTIA’s plan to provide consumers with $40 vouchers to help cover the cost of converters. While still not finalized, the current plan is to issue vouchers only to consumers with no cable or satellite access, and that would be unfair, according to McSlarrow. “On one hand, NTIA isn’t covering cable homes. On the other, the FCC is making rules that will make cable boxes more expensive,” that, he said, “makes no sense, the agencies have got to start talking to each other.” Broadcasters “believe vouchers should be made available to everyone,” Donovan said. In addition to being unfair to cable viewers who may have additional TVs not hooked in, “from an emergency services standpoint,” should cable and satellite service suddenly be cut off consumers would still have access to live broadcasts.

As for the type of color TVs consumers will be buying, Taylor said that while some future small screen models will offer only standard or enhanced definition, in larger sizes, high definition “is the centerpiece of digital TV.” In agreement, Donovan said broadcasters believe high definition will drive the transition from analog.” McSlarrow pointed out that 28 major cable networks are already distributing digital TV and “no one has to push us to promote high definition.”

With cable facing competition from phone operators, wireless, satellite and the Internet, if cable systems “try to play games with quality they are going to lose,” McSlarrow said. However, he added that cable systems will still have to provide some customers with analog channels. As for the vast array of channels likely to be available, “at some point, when you get to 1,000 channels you get to the place where enough’s enough.”

A major technical issue on the horizon is the proposal to have the FCC authorize the use of unlicensed low power wireless digital devices on unused digital TV channels. Set makers “are very concerned about this,” Taylor said. “Anything that may cause interference is problematic.” Technology proposed to minimize interference “has never been tested,” said Donovan, “and what concerns us is as we are trying to sell sets you will have another layer of spectrum users set right on top, so let’s stay focused now on digital transition.”

A peripheral issue is the possibility that millions of analog sets will be junked as a result of the change and the need for a recycling program. “Our biggest concern,” said Taylor, is that many states are now enacting their own mandatory regulations,” when what’s “needed is a unified federal approach.” As for the education campaign, Donovan said he fully expects that on the cutoff day, “My mother will call me to ask what’s going on. In fact she’ll probably call everybody.” Further, Donovan said, there is so much involved with the transition, including the purchase and installation of broadcasting and cable equipment, set manufacturing schedules and program production, that it would be very difficult to change the transition deadline. “We’re planning that all will go on schedule.”