Answer: When the FCC says it’s a TV.

The FCC has hit up a manufacturer of personal computer TV tuner cards for a $175,000 forfeiture. Why? Because the manufacturer marketed cards that have only analog and not digital tuning capability.  The Notice of Apparent Liability was issued by the full Commission, as opposed to, say, the Enforcement Bureau – a clear sign that the full FCC is still in full-tilt enforcement mode with respect to the marketing of non-compliant TV receivers. (It has been in that mode for at least a couple of years, as we have previously reported here and here, for example.)

Of course, all new TV sets must have both analog and digital tuners.  That requirement, first imposed in 2002, was phased in based on screen size. Since March 1, 2007, all TV receivers imported into or shipped or marketed within the U.S. must include DTV capability.  The rule also applies to all kinds of receiving equipment, including VCRs (who remembers VCRs?) and other devices that lack their own screen and have to plugged into the back of a TV set or other display device.

The PC card manufacturer ran through a whole host of reasonable arguments for why a computer card should not be deemed subject to the rule. It argued that consumers should have a choice of what they want to buy; and in any case, a PC card is just a computer peripheral, not a TV, and is different from a VCR in that the output can’t be plugged into the back of a TV set.  No way, the FCC said.  TV is going digital, and we are not going to tolerate anything, with or without a screen, that is used to receive and display over-the-air TV signals unless it can work with digital signals.

But even the Commission, hard-nosed though it may be, had to acknowledge that, as violations go, selling cheap PC tuner cards with no screen attached is “not as egregious” as selling, like, real TVs (“television receivers with an associated viewing screen”). So rather than lower the maximum boom ($97,500 per violation) onto the manufacturer, the Commission figured it would cushion the blow by charging a mere $25,000 per violation. But what might initially have looked like a mild spanking got ugly when the Commission decided that a separate “violation” occurred with each model marketed. Since the manufacturer had sold seven different PC card models, the bottomline line turned into a considerably heftier $175,000 – not exactly pocket change.

It took me only about five minutes on the Web today to find some analog-only PC cards still for sale.  At least one catalog displayed the consumer alert that was used before digital tuners were universally required, but that alert no longer protects the vendor.  I wonder if the FCC is also browsing the Web.