Digital TV Converter Complications

Earlier this week, a US company named Microtune sent a letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The NTIA is the federal agency in charge of the program to provide rebates for the coverters that will allow analog televisions to receive digital broadcasts. (You can read more about the rebate program in an earlier HDTV Almanac entry.) The NTIA is responsible for making sure that the digital converter boxes meet certification requirements in order to qualify for the rebate program.

Microtune manufactures semiconductor tuners for use in devices such as televisions and digital converter boxes. Like any good company, they keep an eye on competing products. They tested a number of digital converter boxes that used tuner components made by other companies. And as a result of their testing, they discovered that some of the units did not meet the NTIA qualification requirements. So the letter was a request that the NTIA enforce the certification specifications, and to make sure that all the eligible models actually meet the requirements.

How could we get to such a situation? In the past, the FCC relied on independent, third-party test labs to do the certification testing on electronics products. This took time and cost money, and many companies felt that they could get their products to market more quickly if they could apply for certifcation themselves. They had to do the testing anyway to make sure their designs were going to meet the requirements, so why take the time to have it done again? As a result, the FCC moved to self-certification by the manufacturers.

Now, without making any judgment about the merits of the Microtune complaint, I can certainly believe that some companies may be more rigorous than others in testing their products for compliance with the NTIA requirements. And I also can believe that some companies may not have quality control systems that will make sure that all units will conform to the performance of the sample test units.

The problem is that there is no easy way for a consumer to tell by looking at the box whether the converter has a Microtune tuner or some other component. There is no easy way to know if the unit will actually perform to the certification requirements. I hope that the NTIA will move quickly on this complaint, and can come up with a way to restore consumer confidence in the digital converter certification program. Otherwise, there may be a lot of unhappy customers come February next year.