The NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), an agency of the Department of Commerce, today released its specification for converter boxes eligible to receive subsidy coupons through the federally-sponsored DTV Converter Box Coupon Program. This program is intended to provide consumers with an affordable converter box containing state-of-the-art technology available today from manufacturers within the DTV transition timeframe required by Congress.
In the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005, Congress defined the term digital-to-analog (DTA) converter box as a "Stand-alone device that does not contain features or functions except those necessary to enable a consumer to convert any channel broadcast in the digital television service into a format that the consumer can display on television receivers designed to receive and display signals only in the analog television service, but may also include a remote control device." The NTIA was then charged with the authority to interpret this definition, and to operate a coupon distribution program.
There was considerable flak from both industry and Congress over an early NTIA proposal to exclude cable and satellite subscribers from coupon eligibility. The final specification extends coupon eligibility to all households in the United States and its territories - not just those relying on over-the-air television - while the initial funds of $990M are available. An additional $510M in funding is available to meet program demand, but eligibility for these funds will be limited to over-the-air television households. These consumers would self-certify their eligibility.
To roll out the program, NTIA will establish a toll-free number for general information, as well as a consumer Web site which will describe which converter boxes can be purchased with the coupon, as well as which retail stores and/or online outlets will sell boxes. Retailers will have to certify that they have been in business for at least one year in order to participate in the coupon program.
The NTIA specification is arranged in three categories describing required, permitted, and disqualifying features. Within the required category are the following:
- DTA boxes must convert all ATSC formats to NTSC. The units must support 4:3 center cut-out of 16:9 transmitted image, letterbox output of 16:9 letterbox transmitted image, and a full or partially zoomed output of unknown transmitted image.
- An RF output, as well as baseband video and stereo audio outputs must be supplied. Output must produce video at an ITU-R BT.500-11 quality scale of Grade 4 or higher.
- Emergency Alert System (EAS) messages, Parental Control (V-Chip), and Closed Captioning must be supported.
- Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) data must be decoded, and the units must provide the user with tuned channel and program information.
- The spec stopped short of requiring compliance with the EPA Energy Star Specification, but nonetheless requires DTA boxes to consume no more than 2 watts when passive (no video or audio display), with an automatic powerdown feature (defeatable) when operator input has not been detected for a certain time. EPA had earlier issued a DTA spec that called for no more than 8 watts when active, and 1 watt when passive.
- Various RF sensitivity and interference rejection performance parameters are also required.
It was ruled that manufacturers could self-certify compliance with these requirements, but must provide test results and two units to the NTIA for ad hoc testing. FCC may test converter boxes at the request of NTIA. Among the optional features permitted but not required are the following:
- Support for a smart antenna, through the use of the CEA-909 Antenna Control Interface.
- BTSC stereo at the RF output, and S-Video.
- EPG, and software update.
Specifically excluded from coupon eligibility are high-definition video output and DVR functionality, as well as digital cable and satellite boxes.
It appears that the NTIA rules are a good compromise between consumer need, industrial competitiveness, and government oversight. While each interested party may not have gotten all the features they wanted, the NTIA, under growing Congressional (and media) pressure, and bound by the timing constraints of the White House Office of Management and Budget, has released its long-awaited specification with no major surprises, and no further delays anticipated. With this announcement, several manufacturers will surely have DTA units available next January, when coupons first become available.
Let the final race begin!