Court Upholds DTV Tuner Mandate

As of October 28, electronics manufacturers have little choice about whether to include digital tuners in new television sets.

On that date, a federal appeals court in Washington upheld a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule requiring the inclusion of DTV tuners in forthcoming products. The rule requires phasing in such tuners in 2004, beginning with the largest models. Smaller sets will be required to have them according to a timetable established for the next few years, so that eventually even inexpensive 13" TVs will come equipped to receive digital signals. The regulation is part of an overall plan to transform the nation's broadcast system from the old analog NTSC standard to the new ATSC standard, which includes high-definition and standard-definition (DVD-quality) programming.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) objected to the requirement, citing widespread use of set-top converter boxes (STBs) provided by cable companies and direct broadcast satellite (DBS) services. CEA members complained that tuner requirement would add to manufacturing and retail costs without providing a benefit for consumers. (Estimates of the potential retail price increases ranged from about $25 per set to as high as $250, depending on the source.) That argument was dismissed by the three-judge panel, who determined that such objections were part of a "logjam was blocking development of digital television," in the words of Judge John G. Roberts, who wrote the opinion for the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The rollout of digital television has encountered many obstacles. The CEA had long blamed broadcasters for not providing sufficient content in the new format, and cable companies for failing to accommodate the signals. Both of those problems have largely been solved. Although the CEA hasn't ruled out an appeal, the organization's spokeswoman Jenny Miller said members would "follow the letter of the law."

National Association of Broadcasters NAB) president Eddie Fritts hailed the court's decision, describing it as "a milestone towards completing the DTV transition. Consumers buying TV sets will know that the receivers they buy will continue to receive all broadcast signals, even as broadcasting changes to digital." Manufacturers are still completely free to make video displays without tuners at all. In the market place, such devices are known as "monitors" rather than as "television sets."