LAS VEGAS — The deadline for broadcasters to transition from analog to digital – pushed back several times but now set for February 2009 – looks like it’s going to stick this time.
That according to David Donovan, president of Maximum Service Television (MSTV), Kyle McSlarrow, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and John Taylor, VP of public affairs at LG Electronics and chairman of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) HDTV promotion committee.
The three were here at CES as panelists for a session called “Get Ready for the End of Analog TV and Say Hello to HDTV.” Several panelists noted that Rep. John Dingell continues to raise good, hard questions about the transition, and that no deadline is safe in Washington, but that there are so many plans contingent on the deadline being met it would be difficult to cancel it. First and foremost of these contingencies is the auction of the vacated spectrum the U.S. government expects to hold next year.
That said, there are a variety of issues still to be resolved involving everything from public education to public assistance to technological hurdles.
Taylor said that starting in March, every single TV sold in the U.S. will have a digital tuner incorporated. But there will still be tens of millions of TV sets that will not be able to get over-the-air digital signals. These will require some sort of box to translate digital signals to analog signals that those legacy sets can understand.
LG has a prototype, Taylor said, but no one can be entirely sure what that box will look like until the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, specifies exactly what it must look like. The NTIA intends to announce those rules at the end of this month. Taylor expects the rules to include some minimum levels of performance, and specifications for a simple program guide and the use of a remote control.
The government has allocated some money to help consumers buy these converter boxes. On Jan. 5, the NTIA said it expects to soon circulate a request for proposals for a coupon program. These coupons, expected to each be valued at $40, will help consumers pay for these boxes.
The problem, the session panelists explained, is that there isn’t enough money to cover all of the tens of millions of analog TVs still in use and not connected to a pay-TV service. Who gets coupons? Only low-income viewers? Why shouldn’t everybody with a TV get one, and does the government have the authority to not give a coupon to everyone who wants one?
No matter how these issues are decided, nothing is going to work unless the public is prepared for it. Consumer education programs are likely to start this year. A public education site, called My CE Know-How, has been set up.