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Converter-box performance: Reports raise concerns

June 1st, 2007

Converter boxes for conventional televisions, one of the keys to a successful digital TV transition in 2009, have yet to hit the mass market. But already the reception capabilities of the digital-to-analog converter boxes that will be eligible for $40 rebate coupons from the federal government have been called into question.

The converters must meet a government-imposed performance requirement, instituted at the urging of a broadcasting industry worried that poorly engineered converter boxes would shrink their audiences. But that very performance requirement, which corresponds to the ATSC A/74 Receiver Performance Guidelines set by the U.S.-based digital TV standards body, is being criticized by Charles W. Rhodes, a broadcast technology consultant writing for TV Technology. Rhodes, whose recent columns have examined possible threats to broadcast TV reception from unlicensed devices that would share broadcast spectrum, sounds quite alarmed by three recent laboratory testing reports on DTV receivers.

Rhodes highlights several interference scenarios uncovered by the reports, which were prepared by the FCC, the Canadian Research Center, and the University of Kansas. The reports suggest, according to Rhodes’ interpretation, that manufacturers of digital TV receivers have largely ignored ATSC A/74. What’s more, A/74 deserves to be ignored, in his view, because “it’s busted!”

If Rhodes is correct, this does not bode well for analog TV owners hoping to purchase reliable digital TV adapters, and it could even undermine the DTV transition.

Rhodes takes the reports very seriously, describing the government’s thusly:

It may be the most important technical document from the FCC ever.

Meanwhile, several companies are working to bring to market converter boxes compliant with A/74, as mandated by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), by early next year. What remains to be seen is whether the FCC will go through with its controversial plan, much anticipated by technology enthusiasts, to let unlicensed transmitters share broadcast spectrum once the February 17, 2009, DTV transition is completed.

This story isn’t over, and I would be most interested to learn how other analysts view this issue. I truly hope that converter box manufacturers, broadcasters and government regulators will study it closely.

• Link: TV Technology

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