As you probably know, analog TV broadcasts will cease on February 17, 2009—less than a year away. For many viewers, it will be a nonevent, simply because they don’t depend on over-the-air broadcasts for their viewing. But the number of American households that will be affected is staggering.

A study by the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) put this number at 22 million back in June of 2007. What’s even more astonishing is that in an earlier study by the association, 61% of these people weren’t even aware of this FCC-mandated cutoff date. Thankfully, they’re better informed today.

“We need a Y2K-level effort to ensure that people are aware that their older TV sets will go dark in 21 months if they don’t acquire a digital converter, buy a new set, or incur the monthly cost of a cable or satellite bill,” said former APTS president and CEO John Lawson at the time of the June study.

“They also need to know that digital over-the-air television will continue to be free, will offer them many more channels, and will give them a better picture even on an older set—if they get a converter box,” Lawson added.

AN OVER-THE-AIR COMEBACK
A study in November of 2007 found that 43% of over-the-air households will reject post-transition pay TV, instead preferring to receive free, over-the-air digital television by purchasing a converter box or digital TV set, compared to 12% who would sign up for a cable or satellite service.

“This data indicates that free, over-the-air television may be set for a big comeback,” said Lawson. “Many people see broadcasting as a dinosaur technology, but we broadcasters have the opportunity to reposition it as ‘wireless TV’ and reach new audiences.”

Still, 25% of Americans said they “don’t know” what steps they would take, and 19% said they would “do nothing.” Of those who said they would “do nothing,” 17.6% said they would postpone or wait before they take any action, if at all. The study also found that while more Americans are aware of the transition to digital television than before, 77% remain unaware as to why the federal government is mandating the change to their television viewing.

To help with the transition to digital broadcasts, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) launched the Digital- to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program on January 1. All U.S. households are eligible to request up to two coupons, worth $40 each, to be used toward the purchase of up to two digital-to-analog converter boxes.

TUNING IN TO CONVERTER BOXES
So which IC companies have developed products intended for these converter boxes? There may be a slew of them, but I met with just one at the International Consumer Electronics Show back in January—MaxLinear (www.maxlinear.com).

This fabless communications IC company develops CMOSbased broadband RF ICs for consumer markets. At the show, it announced the MxL5007T, a TV tuner IC developed for these low-cost converter boxes as well as for set-top boxes and other TV systems (see the figure).

The MxL5007T is based on the company’s proprietary digital CMOS implementation. It measures just 5 by 5 mm in a 32-pin quad flat no-lead (QFN) package. A highly integrated device, it includes low-noise amplifiers (LNAs), baluns, tracking and loop filters, and surface acoustic wave (SAW) filter-like functionality.

According to the company, the device exceeds by a healthy margin the ATSC A/74 Receiver Performance Guidelines, especially the stringent distortion specification for rejection of unwanted signals proximate to the desired signal. This is a critical performance metric for converter boxes covered under the NTIA coupon program.

The company also touts the MxL5007T as the “greenest” tuner IC on the market, since it consumes only 300 mW. In comparison to 1-W or greater tuners, employing the MxL5007T in the more than 30 million units covered by the coupon program potentially will save more than 35 MW and $40 million in energy costs per year.

I also met with Xceive at the show, but this silicon tuner company focuses on the people who will decide to purchase a digital TV rather than settle for a converter box (see “Retooling Electronic Design For 2008” at www.electronicdesign.com, ED Online 18104). Xceive’s SiliconNOW tuner module can receive both analog and digital over-the-air broadcasts. It’s based on the company’s silicon-germanium XC5000, which is a 7- by 7-mm hybrid TV receiver.