Motorola absent from DTV converter box market

July 17th, 2007

As momentum builds for the digital TV transition, Motorola has been notably absent from the DTV converter box party. Consumer electronics firms that have announced digital-to-analog converter boxes include LG, Thomson/RCA, Samsung and Jasco/GE. The devices, sometimes called digital TV adapters, will allow conventional television sets to continue taking in over-the-air broadcasts after the analog TV shutdown on February 17, 2009.

Motorola announced today that it will combine its TV set-top box business with its network equipment business, according to Reuters. The company, along with Scientific Atlanta, is a leading maker of cable boxes. Motorola demonstrated a prototype cable box with built-in digital broadcast tuner at the 2007 Cable Show in May.

But what about DTV converter boxes for antenna-only viewers?

“Motorola has not announced any product roadmap-related plans associated with the off-air tuner functionality,” Motorola’s Kalia Farrell said in a statement. So I guess we shouldn’t expect any Motorola DTV converters for next year’s federal converter box coupon program.

A cable box with ATSC tuning capabilities may hold more promise for the company, without the added burden of entering a new market. It could also be a welcome addition to the cable industry’s arsenal—a new weapon against broadcasters demanding “retransmission consent” payments for carriage of their channels. Cable companies would have a means of offering their customers continued access to local channels while refusing to pay station owners, thereby weakening broadcasters’ leverage in negotiations over carriage.

The dual-purpose box could even be part of a larger strategy to chip away at FCC “must-carry” rules, which set conditions for mandated carriage of stations by cable systems.

The broadcasting lobby, meanwhile, wants the federal government to grant must-carry status to new multicast channels launched by local stations across the country as part of their move to DTV. (Multicast must-carry is opposed by cable lobbyists, of course. Cable operators chafe at existing rules and would welcome the opportunity to reclaim channel capacity from broadcasters.)

A cable box equipped with a digital broadcast tuner could be a double-edged sword—especially if station owners offer compelling programming on their multicast DTV channels.

Most cable customers today miss out on local multicasts that aren’t carried by cable systems. But in households equipped with a dual-purpose box, channels that people don’t know exist would suddenly be in direct competition with cable channels. (Although I suspect cable companies would try to reassign channel numbers, if allowed, or employ other tactics designed to disadvantage local stations.)

In larger markets, the prospect of 30 or more channels available for free might be enough to convince some consumers to ditch cable. Television broadcasting, weaned from its dependence on cable to deliver most of its audience, might again serve an actual purpose.

But I digress.

Motorola has not announced any plans to bring an ATSC cable box to market. Farrell writes: “We are continuing to work with CableLabs on specification development activities (which I believe CableLabs has indicated are scheduled to be completed later this year).

“We are currently working with our customers to understand what the potential demand might be for this type of technology,” she adds, “and how they would like to see it implemented in our product line going forward.”

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