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Old TVs Steal Show at NAB

Amid the latest gadgetry on display at NAB, old-school TV sets also got their share of buzz. That's because consumer-electronics manufacturers were showing prototypes of low-cost digital-to-analog (D-to-A) converter boxes that will allow analog-only TV sets to continue functioning when analog signals turn off as scheduled on Feb. 17, 2009.

LG Electronics, which bought Zenith in 1999, presented a laptop-size converter box connected to a 1980 Zenith set at the “DTV Hot Spot.” Next to it, Thomson Consumer Electronics showed its DTV converter, about the size of a digital cable box, connected to a wood-encased 1987 RCA set. Both TVs were displaying pictures from the multiple DTV broadcasts now available in the Las Vegas market.

While the task they perform is basic, such converter boxes are of great interest to both broadcasters and regulators. Some 20 million viewers rely solely on free over-the-air television, and since many cable and DBS subscribers have second or third television sets that are not hooked up to a set-top box, an estimated 70 million sets will be rendered obsolete when analog is turned off. The government has allocated $1.5 billion to subsidize the converter-box program. Under the plan, the boxes should cost around $50 each, and consumers will receive $40 vouchers.

The boxes were also demonstrated at the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) meeting, where Aldo Cugnini of AGC Systems, the project director for the program, said development was on schedule: “We are well on our way to building those boxes for delivery later this year.”

Both the LG and Thomson boxes had electronic program guides (EPGs) driven by the Program and System Information Protocol (PSIP) data that is sent within the DTV signal. LG's guide was fairly simple, while the Thomson one was similar to a digital cable or satellite EPG, with a window for live video in the guide.

When a channel switch occurred, both boxes briefly generated a banner listing channel, program and rating information, as well as signal strength. Jeff Kasten, project director for Thomson, says the EPG will store three days' worth of program information generated by PSIP data. The box will also have a parental-control feature and a VCR timer integrated into the guide.

Twenty million to 40 million of the boxes will be needed by 2008, says Wayne Lupow, VP of HDTV standards and promotions for LG's Zenith unit. LG delivered 25 prototype boxes to MSTV in late March, and 25 pre-production units will be available for testing this summer.

LG also showed a mockup of a small converter box, similar in size to the latest digital cable set-tops, which LG will be able to produce in the future by using a single-chip approach to the DTV tuning technology.

Broadcasters are guardedly optimistic about the technology. Mark Aitken, director of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, says the fifth-generation DTV chips from LG and other manufacturers will receive over-the-air signals reliably, provided the box delivers a clean signal to the chip. He's more concerned about the quality of the radio-frequency components that may find their way into low-cost boxes.

“The federal government would be remiss in its duty if it agrees to allow a $40 subsidy to be applied to a product that didn't meet some sort of minimum requirements,” says Aitken.

Meeting the $50 target price is possible, say Kasten and Lupow, provided there is further development in integrated single-chip tuners and the efficiencies that come with high-volume production.

But Lupow cautions against focusing on price at the expense of performance:“If it doesn't work, it's not good news for anyone.”