- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday required television manufacturers to include digital tuners in all sets by July 2007, a move intended to accelerate the slow transition to digital television.

Commissioners voted 3-1 to require manufacturers to add the tuners to television sets with 36-inch screens and larger by July 2004 and add the devices to smaller sets in the ensuing three years.

"The bottom line is that we must get the DTV transition back on track," FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps said.

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Commissioner Kevin Martin cast the dissenting vote.

Electronics manufacturers, which opposed the FCC mandate, said the decision needlessly will boost the cost of digital televisions.

Digital sets, which provide better picture quality than analog units, cost an average of $400, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Digital tuners could boost the cost of a television by $250, the trade group said.

Tuners give televisions the capacity to receive over-the-air digital signals through antennas. Not all television sets need that piece of equipment. About 13 percent of consumers receive a television signal over the air. The remaining 87 percent of consumers subscribe to cable or satellite television services and don't need the tuner, said Michael Petricone, vice president of technology policy at the Consumer Electronics Association.

"We share the FCC's desire to transition to digital television, but I think we need to do it in a more consumer-friendly way," he said.

The Consumer Electronics Association will appeal the decision, group President Gary Shapiro said.

Broadcasters said the tuners won't be a burden for consumers because the devices will cost as little as $15 each, and they applauded the FCC for making a decision they expect will help bring digital television to consumers.

"Today's FCC decisions represent the most important action on digital television since adoption of the DTV standard in 1996. FCC Chairman [Michael] Powell and the commission recognized the congressional imperative to stimulate the DTV marketplace and deserve enormous credit for taking pro-consumer steps to jump-start the transition," National Association of Broadcasters President and Chief Executive Edward O. Fritts said.

Even though manufacturers and broadcasters disagreed on the true cost of tuners, Mr. Powell predicted the cost of the devices will be offset by the decline in the cost of digital sets as manufacturers make more of them and consumers buy more.

The FCC chairman also said that even though more consumers subscribe to cable and satellite services than use antennas to capture over-the-air signals, the commission couldn't ignore that consumers own 81 million television sets that rely on over-the-air signals.

Congress has issued a mandate that television manufacturers and broadcasters switch from analog to digital signals and complete the transition by Dec. 31, 2006.

Broadcasters were given free communications spectrum to make digital signals available. When the switch from analog is complete, broadcasters must return their analog channels to the government, which plans to use that space to support wireless telephone services.

But few consumers own digital sets. About 3.5 million digital televisions have been sold, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

The FCC's mandate yesterday "seems like a positive step, and in the end it should bring the cost of televisions down. I think people are intrigued by digital television, and I think they will go for it if the cost of the sets comes down," said Linda Sherry, editorial director of the San Francisco nonprofit group Consumer Action.

Cost hasn't been the only hurdle preventing a digital television revolution.

Limited digital programming is available, and cable companies are not required to carry digital signals and analog signals simultaneously.

The Consumer Electronics Association said the FCC should focus on pushing cable operators to carry the digital signal as a means of making digital television available to a broader audience.

"We readily admit that there are additional steps to take," Mr. Powell said. "But simply because there is more work to be done does not mean that we should defer the progress we can make today."

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