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25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth

25th Anniversary of FCC Decision Enabling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth
A series of posts describing how this all came about. (Click on picture above)

Monday, August 18, 2008

6 Months to Go and Some DTV Confusion Continues

Now if you really want the straight story on the DTV conversion and your options as a cable consumer, you would think NCTA's website would be a more reliable source of information than the feuding FCC and NTIA websites. So back from my trip to the hinterlands of Arizona, California, and Utah, I checked out what happens if you are a cable subscriber.

So I clicked on the link shown above labeled "Digital Television Transition Resources". This brings you to another page:

Here you have 2 options: The top link is labeled "DTV transition" and takes you to a site sponsored by the DTV Transition Coalition consisting of a Who's Who in the broadcasting, cable, and consumer electronics area with a few consumer groups too. On this website, you will find the following information under "What You Need to Know":
  • "TV sets that currently receive programming through cable or satellite are not likely to be affected by the transition to digital."
If you take the bottom link entitled Cable Customers: Get Ready for Digital TV you get to an NCTA-sponsored website that has this information"
  • "If you are a cable customer, you may have to do little or nothing to enjoy your favorite programming after the switch to digital TV (DTV). Your cable provider will take care of the transition for you!
  • That's because your cable company already has technology in place to handle DTV. It does this by capturing these digital signals and sending them to your home through the same cable connection that delivers popular national channels like ESPN, CNN, HBO and hundreds of others. As long as your TV sets are connected to cable, they'll display local DTV stations, along with the many other stations cable has to offer."
FCC's www.dtv.gov website has this information:
  • "Cable subscribers may need new DTV equipment to view DTV programming in digital format. You should ask your cable provider what you will need and when."
  • "Analog TVs will continue to work with cable, satellite, VCRs, DVD players, camcorders, video games consoles and other devices for many years" (We will show below that "many years" in the case of cable could end in February 2012)
Another part of the FCC website says:
  • "Subscribe to a paid TV service. If your TV set receives local broadcast stations through a paid provider such as cable or satellite TV, it is already prepared for the DTV transition. (Emphasis added)
Finally on NTIA's website we read:
  • TVs connected to cable, satellite, or other pay services do not require a TV converter box from this program to receive programs after February 17, 2009. Check with your cable or satellite provider to determine how they will support your analog set after February 17, 2009.
Last week a senior FCC official spoke to a senior citizens group outside the Beltway and said,
  • "As I said, if you subscribe to a pay-tv service, such as Dish, DirecTV, or cableproviders like Comcast, your television will continue to work, regardless of whether it is analog or digital. "
So what is reality here? If you get cable and have a set top box, usually available at an extra charge, you will be able to continue to use your analog TV set indefinitely without any changes, other than perhaps channel number changes.

But if you have your analog TV set connected directly to the cable system and select channels directly with your TV set tuner, you might be in trouble in the near future. FCC did address this issue in their 12/31/07 CS Docket No. 98-120 Third Report and Order and Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (Order Press Release).

The Commission stated,
By statute, cable operators must make local broadcasters’ primary video and program-related material viewable by all of their subscribers. The FCC’s ruling today allows cable operators to comply with the viewability requirement by choosing to either: (1)carry the digital signal in analog format, or (2) carry the signal only in digital format, provided that all subscribers have the necessary equipment to view the broadcast content. The viewability requirements extend to February 2012 with the Commission committing to review them during the last year of this period in light of the state of technology and the marketplace.
However, some customers without set top boxes might get overlooked in this process so NTIA's advice that they check with their cable company is still the best advice.

Note that the FCC requirement only deals with local over-the-air signals (e.g. signals from NAB and MSTV members), not C-SPAN, CNN, The Food Network, etc. So the quote from the DTV Transition Coalition above (actually linked through the NCTA site) that says "TV sets that currently receive programming through cable or satellite are not likely to be affected by the transition to digital." is at best a half truth. So is the FCC quote, "Analog TVs will continue to work with cable, satellite, VCRs, DVD players, camcorders, video games consoles and other devices for many years". But if your idea of TV is limited to what the 15% of American homes without cable or satellite actually see, then the information is correct.

More complicating details:
  • The FCC rule allows smaller cable companies (usually rural) to ask for a waiver so they may not be required to deliver analog signals to their customers. (Cable companies would prefer to carry only digital signals since they get several times the capacity with digital rather than analog and they can use the additional capacity for new channels and pay services.)
  • Another detail that gets loss in this mess of public information is that the NTIA-subsidized set top box is useless if you have cable service and an analog TV set since most cable services will carry digital signals in 64-QAM format, not the over-the-air 8-VSB format. (Try to explain that to you grandmother!)

So of all the statements above, NTIA's www.dtv2009.gov's is probably the best. I see how the senior FCC official had problems in the prepared speech. The official's staffers were probably hopelessly confused by the murky statements out there. But if they were confused, image the sonsumers, particularly older Americans who are also confused.

Hopefully the 9/8/2008 switchover in Wilmington, NC will show the problems here and allow corrective action before the national switchover.
After I posted this today, FCC announced 2 new unprecedented moves to help spread the DTV message:

An Extensive Nationwide Initiative for DTV Outreach

DTV Speakers Bureau

However, these new efforts will have to get the facts right on the issue of cable TV users that do not have set top boxes, a category that probably includes a lot of elderly Americans who don't watch MTV and use basic cable service.

Response on NCTA blog

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