April 30th, 2008 08:16 EST
Digital TV Rules watered down by FCC
A little-noticed order published by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week could have long-range effects for the upcoming transition to digital television (DTV).
After heavy lobbying by the electronics and retail industries, the FCC agreed to limit the number of devices that would require stickers notifying customers that they would need converter set-top boxes to ensure that they could continue to receive television signals over the air, and that the devices would not work properly without them.
The FCC's new order also exempted manufacturers from setting up toll-free numbers to address customer questions about their equipment, preferring instead to direct all public inquiries to the FCC's own number, and delays the deadline for adding stickers and sending out warnings to customers informing them of the upcoming transition.
"The devices related to televisions and television use are many and varied, and, upon reconsideration, we are convinced that requiring that notices be included with every such device will create a greater burden on consumer electronics manufacturers and importers than is justified by the incremental gains in consumer awareness," the commission wrote.
In considering which devices should bear a warning notification about their continued usability after the DTV transition without a converter box, the FCC agreed to limit the specific "related devices "to television broadcast receivers....TV interface devices... devices that record and/or display signals received from television broadcast receivers...and set-top boxes available for sale at retail that receive video programming provided by multi-channel video programming distributors."
The FCC also advised that cable and satellite manufacturers send out notifications informing customers that their set-top boxes would not need to be replaced after the DTV transition, and they would continue to receive programming normally.
Another part of the FCC's initial DTV transition order called for manufacturers to employ multiple points of contact for answering questions about the transition, including phone numbers.
But the FCC amended its order to exempt manufacturers from adding phone numbers, instead directing them to the FCC's 1-888-CALL-FCC toll-free number, as well as the government's various DTV-related Web sites.
Why? To ease confusion, of course.
"In many cases a manufacturer does not maintain an appropriate telephone number, so this requirement could result in consumer confusion," the FCC said.
The FCC had originally set a deadline of March 31, 2008 for manufacturers to start notifying customers of the DTV transition and the possible need for equipment upgrades, but -- although the industry has known about the upcoming transition for years -- the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and electronics manufacturers argued for a longer "lead time" to change their product packaging and print up notices.
"We are persuaded that they need additional time to come into compliance, and the approval and publication process associated with implementation of the amended rules will give manufacturers sufficient time to fully comply," the Commission wrote. "To further assist the manufacturers in ensuring their readiness for compliance, we are establishing a date certain, May 30, 2008, as the effective date for these rules."
Moving the goalposts
The FCC's revised rules for manufacturers are the latest example of problems encountered as the country prepares for the shift to digital TV broadcasts. Consumer groups, telecommunications experts, and members of Congress have criticized the FCC and the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) for not providing enough information on the transition to Americans, and for not requesting enough funds to manage related problems.
The NTIA was responsible for the $40 vouchers that could be used towards purchase of a new set-top converter box. But the coupons expire 90 days from issue, with no option for reissue or replacement, and many electronics companies have not begun selling converter boxes yet. The coupons also cannot be used online, forcing users to visit retailers in person to buy converter boxes.
The NTIA announced on April 24 that it would consider enabling nursing home residents and owners of P.O. boxes to receive the coupons, but has not addressed the expiration date problem yet.
Reports vary as to how many households could be in danger of limited or lost television service without converter boxes. Consumers' Union reported in February that 11 percent of American households, or 23 million households, would "go dark" after the transition, with Midwestern and Western states being the hardest-hit.
Another report from market research firm Centris found that even major urban areas such as New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. would have areas of "challenged reception," where over-the-air television viewers would not be able to pick up digital signals even with converter boxes, unless they bought better antennae as well.
Many consumer activists have charged that retailers were failing to inform consumers about what to do to prepare for the transition, or were themselves uninformed as to what equipment they could sell.
The FCC recently levied fines totaling $6 million on numerous big-box retailers, including Circuit City, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart, for selling televisions that did not have warning labels informing buyers that they would require a converter box to receive digital signals after the transition.
What to do
The following sites have more information about the analog-to-digital transition:
• Our Dawn Carlson provides a thorough overview of what you need to know.
• Visit the FCC's official DTV site to get more information.
• Apply for a converter box coupon at the NTIA's converter program Web site.