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Mobile digital TV hits a snag: analog TV

For some of us, the digital-TV transition isn't over yet: Almost a year after almost all analog over-the-air broadcasts ended, digital viewers still lack satisfactory ways to watch while on the go-- while a minority of stations haven't made that switch from analog.

And a technology designed to address the first issue--a mobile digital-TV standard that, unlike today's handful of portable sets, would allow reception in moving vehicles-- just hit a regulatory speed bump raised by the second issue, the low-power and "translator" stations that didn't have to convert to digital last June.

Federal Communications Commission regulations generally require that televisions be able to receive both analog and digital signals. But manufacturers apparently didn't realize that would be an issue until months after launching tests of analog-free mobile-DTV tuners in the Washington area and are now asking the FCC to waive those rules.

John Taylor, a vice president with LG Electronics, e-mailed Tuesday that the company realized it might have a problem after "informal discussions with FCC staff over the past month or two."

The FCC's Media Bureau published a notice (PDF) May 20 asking for comment on a waiver, with comments due June 4.

This hiccup cast a bit of a shadow on a showcase of mobile-DTV gear staged Monday night at the Newseum (you might have seen it covered on the local news that night) that featured portable screens, USB-connected tuners for laptops and DTV-enabled smartphones.

Taylor, however, predicted no change in LG's anticipated third-quarter arrival of DTV hardware in stores: "We're not overly concerned. There is wide agreement that analog tuners in mobile DTV devices make no sense. The waiver process is the most expeditious way to put this matter to bed."

Dave Arland, a spokesman for the Open Mobile Video Coalition, professed the same optimism, e-mailing that "OMVC expects that this technical issue to be resolved shortly."

That's probably true. But if there's one thing I've learned about digital TV in a dozen years of reporting, it's that there's rarely just one thing with digital TV.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  May 26, 2010; 9:43 AM ET
Categories:  Mobile , TV  
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Comments

I know the rise of iPods and other MP3 devices has made the Walkman passe, so there may be no market for this, but will these mobile digital tuners allow for Sony and other manufacturers to include TV audio reception back in to their portable radios?

I used to have a Sony Walkman that received TV signals, and I'd listen to the audio of certain TV shows while on the go. The demise of analog signals changed that.

Posted by: CJMARTIN04 | May 26, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

"USB-connected tuners for laptops "
I have one of those. The ElGato EyeTV dongle. Works great in places where you get reception.

Posted by: wiredog | May 26, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Is there really a market? I have a hard time believing that there is much demand from people to watch tv "on the go" on teeny, tiny little screens. Especially when they have giant 50"+ TVs at home.

Posted by: fedssocr | May 26, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

fedssocr, you need to think "outside the cellphone." Mobile DTV is not just for cellphones, but it can be viewed on just about any mobile screen, including laptops, in-car DVD screens, even digital signage applications. There's also an adapter (hasn't hit the market yet) that will allow you to watch it on an iPhone or perhaps an iPad in the near future.

Posted by: novatom1 | May 26, 2010 4:04 PM | Report abuse

I'll second CJMARTIN04's call for TV audio back on the radio. This was my number one concern when the digital transition was first announced. I spoke up in every forum that I read in the months leading up to the change. It was dismissed as minor in most of them. I have depended on TV audio on radio since the 60s when I first found it in Bangkok. We had no TV, but the English language soundtrack was broadcast on FM. Believe it or not, even I Spy could be enjoyed. Our family has always had several TV-radios and we really miss that option.

Posted by: txJosh16 | May 26, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

I think TV audio in your walkman-style radio is gone for good. In the days of analog TV, you basically needed an FM receiver to demodulate TV audio, because it is FM. (That is why, before the DTV transiton, when tuning to the low end of your FM receiver, you could sometimes pick up the audio of a channel 6 TV station, like in Richmond VA.)

To get HDTV audio on a small portable radio now you would have to put a regular HDTV chip inside, and demodulate the whole digital stream to get at the audio. The video and audio are all multiplexed. That is too much power consumption for a radio. Also, there are going to be signal strength issues with a simple headphone-cord antenna -- there may be so many audio dropouts it may be frustrating. I mean, look at what you have to do to lock on to an HDTV signal inside DC now. It's not easy.

Here's an idea. TV stations could make a deal with radio stations to use their HD Radio sub-channels for TV audio. Then you could get one of those walkman-type HD Radios Rob has reviewed and seemed passable before as I recall, and I would expect is better now.

Posted by: Bob_Dobbs | May 26, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

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