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Groups: Converter Boxes Will Become Obsolete

The American Association of People with Disabilities, the Consumer Federation of America and several other groups asked the Federal Communications Commission to open an inquiry into what they said is a problem with digital TVs and converter boxes.

In a letter to FCC chairman Kevin Martin , they argued that manufacturers are knowingly selling products that could soon be obsolete because they do not contain automatic software-upgrade capability (think of computers and online-delivered patches and software upgrades).

They pointed out that other products, including cable and satellite set-tops and TiVo digital-video recorders, have such capability.

Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) -- chairs of the House Commerce Committee and Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, respectively -- wanted that update function in the DTV-to-analog converter boxes the National Telecommunications and Information Administration certified for its coupon-subsidy program, but the NTIA instead chose a more stripped-down baseline model.

"The digital converter boxes now being subsidized by the NTIA and all digital televisions, with the exception of models produced by Sony, do not have any automatic software repair or upgrade capability," the groups said.

Having the upgrade function, the argued, would extend the life of all of this new equipment viewers are being required by the government to buy, would make the equipment more adaptable to upgrades in emergency or parental-control technology -- some of the set-tops are not compatible with the latest V-chip iteration, for example – and would make them better able to deal with software errors that have cropped up with some boxes.

In addition, "automatic update capability could also benefit people with disabilities," they said. "For example, it would enable rapid dissemination of new innovations and enhancements to existing technologies for captioning and video description," they wrote Martin.

The groups suggested that the FCC could address the problem by requiring such functionality as part of a certification process or labeling of the equipment, although the commission was already challenged by retailers over its attempts to require labeling of analog-only sets.

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.