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Dumb and dumber

Mon, 09/30/2002 - 8:00pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

Ciciora
By Walter S. Ciciora , Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues
There's a contest going on to see who can come up with the dumbest statements and rules regarding Digital TV (DTV). There are loads of participants, and there are very likely to be some new candidates for the title of "dumbest."

In the "dumb" category, the Federal Communications Commission has introduced a rule that requires television receivers to have "digital tuners" after certain dates. Receivers 36 inches and larger will have to be 50 percent "digital tuner" equipped after July 1, 2004, and 100 percent after July 1, 2005. Receivers 25 inches to 35 inches click in a year later, and receivers 13 inches to 24 inches all must include "digital tuners" after July 1, 2007. After July 1, 2007, VCRs, DVD players and computers that have a television tuner will have to include a "digital tuner."

There is a gap between 35 and 36 inches, and between 24 and 25 inches. So, for example, a 24.5-inch receiver wouldn't be covered. I'm sure that is not the case, but you'd think somebody would read the press release for inconsistencies like that.

The only way I can think of to ensure 50 percent coverage is to bundle a receiver with a "digital tuner" with one that doesn't have that capability. This reminds me of the joke back when average car gas mileage regulations were introduced. It was said that when you bought a Lincoln Town Car, you would get a Ford Pinto for free. The average gas mileage for cars sold would then meet the federal requirements. Otherwise, consumers who will see the receiver with a "digital tuner" costing a couple of hundred dollars more will likely choose the one without the added cost.

The really dumb thing about this is that essentially none of these expensive new "digital tuners" will be used. Anyone who buys an expensive new digital receiver will almost certainly be a cable or DBS subscriber and connect up the receiver to that medium. Almost none of these receivers will be connected to an antenna. (I won't even discuss the reception problems with the broadcast modulation standard.) So the added cost is a massive waste. But this is a practice with a well-established history. Most recently, all TV receivers 13 inches and larger have to have a "V-chip" circuit so that parents can preclude the watching of certain types of programming by their children. How many people do you know who use this feature? I know none. I own a couple of receivers with this feature, but its use is more confusing than setting a VCR clock. Neither receiver has an intuitive interface that makes it easy to use. But I bought and paid for this feature because of a dumb regulation; I had no choice.

Captioning for the hearing impaired is another dumb regulation. All receivers 13 inches and larger must have this feature, even though a small fraction of the population needs it. At the time the rule went into effect, I calculated that it would be cheaper for the consumer electronics industry (where I worked at the time) to give anyone who was hearing impaired a free set-top adapter. The hearing impaired would benefit because they would get the capability at no cost to use with existing receivers. Note that the hearing impaired tend to have a higher percentage of low incomes because of their disability. The general public and the consumer electronics industry would be spared the cost of this capability in essentially all receivers. Having gotten away with these two fiats, which are small in comparison, the FCC and Congress now would like to test the limits with something about an order of magnitude more costly. The term "digital tuner" is erroneous. It is not just a tuner with better technical specifications. It includes a demodulator, MPEG-2 decoder, loads of memory, and processing and control circuits. This is not a $10 adder.

Unintended consequences

In a democracy, the free market is the way in which consumers make their choices. They vote with their dollars. They buy things they want and don't buy what they don't want. If the powers that be disagree with the citizens and believe citizens don't know what is best for themselves, then the powers that be impose regulations to frustrate the free market. Messing with the market generally yields unintended consequences. Often, the way the market responds can be surprising. A little forethought can anticipate some possibilities.

What is likely to happen? My guess would be that getting 50 percent sales of "digital tuners" will be very difficult. Total sales of TV receivers are likely to go down. Consumers will simply not replace older receivers as often or add receivers to their homes. Also, those who are inclined to purchase will buy monitors and use them with separate components. DBS receivers and cable set-top boxes will be used more extensively. DVD players will take up more viewing hours.

Dumber

While the "digital tuner" rule is dumb, we saw something dumber. Just prior to the FCC's rule, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) announced that it would not cooperate with the FCC Chairman's request to "voluntarily" add "digital tuners" to receivers. Likely, this refusal to "volunteer" resulted in the "digital tuner" rule that made the digital tuner mandatory. In announcing its refusal to "volunteer," the CEA said it would put digital tuners only in television receivers that had "plug-and-play" capability with cable. Now that's even dumber! A "cable-ready" digital receiver has no need at all for an over-the-air tuner!

Dumbest

The story is not over. Issues of rules for "cable compatibility," digital must-carry, and copyright protection provide ample opportunity to reach the dumbest level.

Why can't we let the consumer decide and let market forces govern the digital transition? Why do we insist on forcing those who can't afford cable or DBS service and rely on over-the-air reception to make a difficult choice between a new digital receiver or some of life's necessities?

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