As the digital television transition continues to progress, the FCC has been pursuing not only broadcasters who have been slow in building out their digital facilities, but also consumer electronic manufacturers who have not done enough to facilitate the transition. In a letter released this week, Chairman Martin has by letter urged consumer electronics retailers to stock inexpensive converter boxes that will pick up digital signals and allow analog television sets to broadcast those signals, keeping those sets from becoming obsolete. Also, the FCC recently entered into a consent decree agreeing to a fine for Sling Media for not including a digital television tuner in some of its equipment, reminding all consumer electronics manufacturers, including those who install them as an adjunct to their technology, of the need to include such tuners in their equipment.

The issue of the digital converter boxes is an interesting one. When NTIA started issuing coupons to consumers to subsidize their transition to digital, it was hoped that the $40 coupons that consumers would receive would come close to covering the entire cost of the converter box necessary to keep an analog set operational. In fact, in most cases, the boxes have cost more than $40, requiring the consumer to pay at least some of the cost of the box. What has been particularly frustrating has been the announcement that Echostar, the satellite television provider of the Dish Network, had manufactured a highly rated box that would be available at $40, and would also include the ability to “pass through” analog signals – to continue to receive analog as well as digital signals – a particularly important property in markets where there are LPTV or TV translator stations that will continue to operate in analog after the February 17, 2009 deadline for the digital conversion of full-power television stations (see our post here on that issue). However, as the Chairman’s letter makes clear, that box and boxes like it are not available in most consumer electronics stores. Thus, the Commission has urged retailers to stock such devices in these final months before the digital cut-off so that no one is left behind. 

The Sling case resulted in a $42,500 to the manufacturer of the SlingBox device that takes a TV signal and transmits it over the Internet to the owner’s computer, wherever the user may be – so that he or she can keep up with their local TV programs. One might not think of these sorts of high-tech devices as having television tuners, but this action reminds all manufacturers of any sort of consumer electronics equipment that they, too, need to be prepared for the digital transition.  The Commission also released two other fines to companies for failure to have digital tuners in devices that pick up TV signals (here and and a second, here, requiring a manufacturer to make sure that receivers without digital tuners that are exported are not returned and resold in the United States unless they have digital tuners).  These actions are all aimed at assuring that the digital transition occurs with as little disruption as possible next February, and make clear that all manufacturers must meet the DTV receiver requirements.