DTV Transition Due for Delay?

By Ken Kerschbaumer

With one month to go until analog television is supposed to turn out the lights, it appears that concerns about disenfranchising upwards of 7% of TV viewers is causing some concern in Washington. The most recent signs are a bill introduced by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) to delay the DTV transition to June 12 while Democrats in the House of Representatives proposed $650 million to continue the coupon program for the transition to digital television, according to a summary of the economic-stimulus legislation released by Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

“I firmly believe that our nation is not yet ready to make this transition,” said Rockefeller.

Roughly 10%-15% of all TV households (30 million-40 million people) still rely on over-the-air television. The government, in an effort to help those viewers, many of whom are elderly or poor or do not speak English, launched a coupon program that would offset the cost of digital converter boxes, which would convert DTV signals to analog. But the coupons expire 90 days after issuance, and, according to reports, half of the more than 25 million people who have requested them have seen their coupons expire.

Compounding the problem is that low-income neighborhoods where over-the-air reception is the norm are not exactly overflowing with electronics retailers that have the converter boxes.

“The outgoing Bush Administration has mismanaged this initiative, and President-elect Obama has asked Congress to delay the date of the transition,” Rockefeller said. “Over 2 million Americans are waiting to receive a coupon to help them offset the cost of equipment that will help them manage the transition; millions more don’t have the proper information they need.”

Rockefeller added that, despite high awareness of the DTV switch, a recent Consumer Reports survey found that, among Americans aware of the transition, 63% had major misconceptions about what steps they need to take to prepare for it.

More important, he added, as a source of local news and information in the event of emergency or natural disaster, television serves a vital role in public safety: “Consumers who do not successfully make the transition will lose access to the Emergency Alert System and AMBER Alert messages.”

It also gives the Federal Communications Commission a chance to gear up for the switch. The FCC expects to receive almost 1.5 million calls on the days immediately following the transition, but, at current capacity, its call center will be able to process only 350,000 of those calls a day. Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell recently stated that “the commission’s efforts to date are inadequate.”

Lastly, there is the safety issue of having millions of consumers changing roof-top antennas in freezing temperatures and wintry conditions. “Pushing back the deadline until the summer will reduce the potential for antenna-related accidents on icy winter days,” added Rockefeller.

Also this week, the FCC issued the Short-term Analog Flash and Emergency Readiness Act, “Analog Nightlight Act,” allowing continued analog-TV service for 30 days after the Feb. 17 transition date. The goal is to allow stations to provide emergency and DTV-transition information to consumers and expands the list of stations “pre-approved” to provide analog nightlight service to include 826 eligible stations covering 47 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and 202 of 210 DMAs. But stations are prohibited from providing analog nightlight service if doing so would cause harmful interference to DTV signals.