FCC firm on digital dates for TV sets

FCEA, CERC accepts new March 1 mandate

This article was updated at 7:38 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission has dealt a setback to the consumer electronics industry, denying its request to nix a mandate that 50% of midsize TV sets made after July 1 contain tuners to receive digital broadcasts.

In exchange, the Consumer Electronics Assn. and Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition had offered to switch to making only digital-enabled TV sets by March 1, 2006, rather than July 1, 2006.

But in a 4-0 vote on Thursday, the commission decided to keep the 50% mandate while accepting the new March 1 deadline. The FCC also announced it may move up the deadline for small TV sets.

“We need to push the transition to its conclusion as expeditiously as possible,” commissioner Kathleen Abernathy said.

CEA and CERC had claimed that the July 1 50% requirement for 25-36 inch TV sets was not feasible because retailers were continuing to order far more traditional analog-only TVs than analog-plus-digital-tuner sets, which cost more. But the commission reasoned that eliminating the 50% requirement would only further delay the transition to DTV, which Congress wants to see happen as soon as possible.

And since the industry had said 100% compliance was possible by March 1, the commission adopted that date as the new final deadline for all midsize sets.

FCC rules as well as draft legislation in the House require that all small sets have digital tuners by July 1, 2007. The commission announced it is considering advancing that date to the end of 2006 and will decide after soliciting and reviewing public comments.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters, which has supported a rapid transition to DTV, praised the FCC actions. “With today’s decision, the FCC validates that the ‘tuner mandate’ is a powerful pro-consumer mechanism for moving the digital television transition forward,” NAB topper Edward O. Fritts said in a statement.

CEA prexy-chief exec Gary Shapiro tried to make the best of the adverse vote. “We are pleased the FCC has accepted our proposal to expedite the 100% tuner deadline,” he said in a statement. “Our proposal provides the certainty manufacturers need to plan and produce products to help complete the DTV transition.”

However, the CEA is “disappoint(ed) over the decision to maintain the 50% deadline. … While conceived as a phase-in for the benefit of manufacturers and retailers, in reality the 50% requirement creates uncertainty in the marketplace for each group and slows the ramping up of volume production necessary to bring costs down.”

Moreover, accelerating the deadline for small TV sets to contain digital tuners “would sharply raise prices on smaller sets, harming low-income consumers,” the statement said.

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