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FCC Advances Tuner Deadline

The FCC Thursday unanimously rejected TV set makers' and retailers' bid to delay the phase-in of midsized TV sets with built-in DTV tuners, choosing instead to advance one tuner phase-in deadline and propose advancing the deadline for all receiver equipment to have the tuners.

Back in February, the commission said it was considering delaying that phase-in, but the commissioners were of one voice that it was time to get the DTV transition moving and not "to take a step back."

It probably didn't hurt that House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton and other committee members back in April said they wanted the FCC to accelerate its tuner deadlines.

Currently, all DTV sets 13-inches and larger must have the tuners by July 1, 2007; Barton wants the deadline moved up to "late 2005 or early 2006." The FCC asked for comment on a new date for that deadline.

Half of all TV sets 25 inches to  36 inches manufactured after July 1, 2005, still must contain DTV tuners, the FCC said Thursday. The consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers associations had asked that the commission drop that midsized mandate and, in exchange, offered to deliver all sets 25 inches and larger with DTV tuners by March 1, 2006, four months earlier than the FCC's current July 1, 2006, deadline.

But while declining to remove the 50% deadline of July 1, 2006, the FCC decided to move up the July 1, 2006, deadline to March 1 anyway, thanking the electronics industry for the offer.

The commissioners said they recognized some of the Consumer Electronics Association's concerns about the staggered phase-in, and agreed there could be some "significant trade-offs" for consumers--but said they needed to get the transition moving and the analog spectrum reclaimed for advanced broadband services and emergency communications.

CEA argued that sticking with the 50% deadline accomplishes nothing beyond filling warehouses with unsold sets. That’s because customers who buy sets 36 inches and smaller tend to choose less-expensive models rather than those with pricier options.

Until all sets contain DTV turners—a step that will bring down the price of the receivers—the devices will add roughly $180 or more to the costs of any set.

The FCC Thursday also suggested that manufacturers include point-of-sale information on the capabilities of their various sets as well as labels so consumers will know which sets can receive digital signals and which can't.

The commission said it wanted all TV sets to be manufactured with DTV tuners by Dec. 31, 2006, which was House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton's deadline of choice for the switch from analog-to-digital, though his draft legislation compromises on Dec. 31, 2008. It asked for comment on what date, no later than that, might be feasible.

That would be at least a six-month advance on the current deadline of July 7, 2007.

The National Association of Broadcasters praised the decision. "With today's decision, the FCC validates that the 'tuner mandate' is a powerful pro-consumer mechanism for moving the digital television transition forward," said NAB President Eddie Fritts. "We salute Chairman Martin and other FCC commissioners for accelerating the original tuner schedule, and we strongly support the proposal to move up DTV tuner compliance for smaller TV sets. Allowing set manufacturers to continue selling analog-only TV sets only elongates the transition to digital." For its part, the Consumer Electronics Association said it was "pleased" (with advancing the 100% mandate to March 2006); "disappointed" (with the failure to drop this year's 50% deadline), and "concerned" (with the proposal to advance the deadline for all TVs).
CEA cautioned that advancing the July 1, 2007, deadline for all sets "would sharply raise prices on smaller sets, harming low-income consumers, " saying its product planning was based on the later deadline.