FCC waiver opens door for digital mobile TV receivers that won’t receive most stations.

A big chunk is missing from the armor of the All-Channel Receiver Act, the law that lets the FCC require every television receiving device to receive all TV channels. The FCC has adopted and enforced all-channel rules in the past, applying them not only to conventional TV sets but also to any device with a TV tuner – even VCRs and DVD players that have no video screen.  The rules have required reception of not only all channel numbers but also all transmission formats. A half century ago, the FCC required all TVs to have UHF tuners to receive Channels 14-69.  More recently, it insisted that all receivers include digital receiving capability, and handed out hefty fines for anyone trying to dump their inventory of analog-only TVs without adequately warning purchasers they were buying soon-to-be-obsolete hardware.

Today’s new video frontier is digital mobile TV that you can watch in the car, on the bus, or on your skateboard.  [Blogmeister Disclaimer: The preceding sentence is not intended to promote watching TV while skateboarding, or driving, or on public transportation without adequate sound-proofing.]  Manufacturers recently started producing mobile digital TV receivers that do not have analog tuners, because analog tuners mean a little more cost, more weight, and less battery life.  Some versions cannot even receive conventional digital television, the kind we watch at home. 

A small minority of TV stations add a special “mobile/hand-held” (M/H) bitstream to the standard digital signal for better reception in a mobile environment. Some of the new digital mobile TV devices require this bitstream to work – as a result, they can’t receive any analog or most digital TV stations.

In other words, the new devices with those limitations violate the standards imposed by the FCC under the All-Channel Receiver Act.

Realizing they might be on the precipice of catching severe regulatory flak, Dell and LG Electronics – both of whom happen to make the devices – ran to the FCC and asked for a quick waiver, so that they can move products that don’t receive all TV formats. Sure enough, they got what they wanted pretty quickly.

The waiver allows omitting both analog tuners and non-M/H digital reception capability.  The FCC gulped a bit before saying OK, because there are still thousands of analog low power TV and TV translator stations, some providing the only TV service to rural areas. These will be invisible to the new receivers.  The FCC also considered what might happen in an emergency when people find that their new receivers can’t tune in most TV stations in big and small markets. (Only 70 out of more than 1,700 TV stations nationwide have committed to implementing M/H by the end of 2010.) 

But mobile reigns supreme with the FCC these days, rightly or wrongly mixed in the same bowl with broadband holy grail; so a screeching halt to production lines or product recalls were not in the cards.

The FCC required prominent labeling of waivered digital mobile TV on the outside of the packaging, so the consumer need not open anything to read it.  Notices must also be displayed at points of sale, saying  “Cannot receive analog low power TV” and/or “Receives only stations broadcasting Mobile DTV”, as applicable.  And the waiver applies only to receivers intended to be used “while in motion”, a term not clearly defined. (The “not clearly defined” limitation is certainly narrower than using, say, battery power as the test, since a lot of battery-powered devices are used in the home, and not “in motion”.)

So here come the new toys, able so far to receive only 70 TV stations when the weather is right.  If you’re a consumer, know the limitations of what you’re buying.  If you are a TV broadcaster, it might be time to consider shelling out the bucks for adding M/H to your signal, to enable you to reach the likely fast-growing cadre of mobile viewers. You’ll be hoping all the while, of course, that the FCC does not repack the spectrum to make you share a channel with another station. The M/H stream needs room for more data bits, which repacking will put in shorter supply.