Small, battery-operated TVs may soon become obsolete, as an unintended consequence of the DTV transition. This February, full-power analog TV broadcasting will come to an end, as the nation converts to digital broadcast. As should be widely known by now, the Feds have developed the TV Converter Box Coupon Program to subsidize the purchase of digital-to-analog converters to service the estimated tens of millions of analog-only TVs still in use. In order to continue using an analog TV after the transition date, a consumer would have to use such a converter box. This applies to all analog-only TVs, including small units operating on battery power.
The Coupon Program, however, was primarily intended (by Congress) to service households that would be burdened by the need to buy a new digital TV. Budgets being what they are, the program had to put a cap on the total cost, and a figure of $1.5 billion was deemed adequate to stave off a political debacle. This also meant that the program would have to limit what kind of box was subsidized, leading to a rather extensive list of regulations to implement the program. These rules permit, but do not require, manufacturers to provide converter boxes that operate on battery power as well as those which use an external AC/DC power input.
And therein lies the problem. To date, no converter boxes - coupon eligible or otherwise - have appeared in the market, that operate on battery power. And the FCC does not anticipate that battery-powered converter boxes will be produced, saying on its DTV website that an external power source would be required. This is not surprising, for several reasons. From a marketing standpoint, the number of existing battery-operated TVs may be quite small - and not enough to trigger a development interest from manufacturers. From a technical standpoint, the battery life of a converter box may be too low to be practical. A DTV tuner and demodulator together can consume 2.5 watts; add to that about 1 watt for the MPEG video decoder, even integrated on a single chip, and battery life may be a challenge if one is relying on the TV and converter box during a long power outage. The few available battery-operated DTVs are no help, either. With prices currently above $200, not too many people will be rushing to replace their existing $30 battery-operated analog TVs.
The upshot is that existing battery-operated TVs may be doomed to an early extinction. But the broadcasters’ strong interest in mobile TV services may offer a viable alternative. Cell-phone and handheld video players should consume much less power than their larger-screened cousins, not only due to the smaller displays, but also because of the lower video processing (bandwidth) requirements - a characteristic that also translates into lower cost.
The catch here for the consumer is all current mobile TV systems are subscriber-only, adding significantly to the cost of your battery powered TV. Broadcasters are expecting to eventually introduce a free, ad-supported mobile TV service. They expect the ATSC to bless a format later this year and network build-out will begin after that. With mobile TV technology already available, battery powered products to use this network can be expected as soon as the network is available.
With the existing battery powered TVs headed for the landfill, there may be hope for the environment, too. Recently, the US Postal Service launched a pilot program in ten cities and 1,500 post offices to allow consumers to recycle small electronic items such as PDAs and MP3 players, and send them—free of charge—to a company that recycles, remanufactures and remarkets the devices. Let’s hope they’ll launch a full program soon, and accept (small) TVs as well. (Late flash - Best Buy has announced a walk-in recycling program, too.) At the very least, here’s your chance to Be Green.