FCC prepares for record volume to call centers as nation switches to digital TV

The FCC has more than 4,000 workers ready to field calls from unprepared consumers

With the passing deadline for the conversion to digital television broadcasting, the Federal Communications Commission is prepared for record numbers of calls to its call centers, where a staff of more than 4,000 is fielding queries from unprepared viewers.

“The calls have definitely been ramping up all week as the deadline approaches,” said FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield. “I think we are up to the full complement of 4,000 at this time. We’ll probably keep it there until Monday.”

The FCC created a DTV hotline in February as an extension of its existing customer support line, 888-CALL-FCC (888-225-5322), which is hosted by a Verizon next-generation service node. Calls to that number concerning the DTV transition are routed to representatives trained to handle those issues.

As the transition approached, the FCC beefed up its call-center capacity with a contract to TeleTech Government Solutions to handle DTV hotline calls using funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. TeleTech began supplementing the FCC’s in-house call center in April, and the next month the system received a record number of calls for one day during the “soft test” of readiness for digital broadcasting. With an estimated 3 million households still unprepared to receive digital TV transmissions, large volumes are expected as more than 900 television stations switch off their analog signals today.

The move from analog television was mandated by Congress to take advantage of the efficiencies of digital broadcasting and free up a swath of radio frequency spectrum now used by broadcasters. That spectrum already has been auctioned off for use in systems that could help provide advanced consumer communications technologies, including high-speed wireless networking. A portion of the spectrum also has been set aside for a nationwide public-safety communications network, although just what the network will look like has not been decided.

The transition originally was set for Feb. 17, but Congress voted in January to delay the switch in order to give consumers more time to prepare.

Because older analog TV sets will not receive the digital signals, viewers will have to either replace the older sets or get digital converter boxes. The FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration have issued 59 million coupons worth $40 toward the purchase of a digital converter, nearly 31 million of which have been redeemed.

But despite outreach efforts, an estimated 3 million households relying on over-the-air broadcasts still are not prepared for digital television. Problems can be compounded by the fact that even with a converter box, viewers might need new antennas to receive the digital signal, and because of differences in the propagation of digital signals viewers might no longer receive broadcast signals from some stations they used to be in range of.

On May 21, more than 125 broadcast markets took part in a soft test of the transition during which analog transition of regular programming were briefly stopped, and viewers who were not equipped to receive the digital signals received a message to call the FCC help line. Prior to the test, the commission’s line had received about 15,000 calls a day in May. On the day of the test that volume spiked to 55,000.

The Chicago media market generated the highest volume of calls with 1,310, followed by the New York media market with 1,277 calls and the Dallas-Fort Worth media market with 764 calls.

“This soft test did exactly what it was supposed to do,” said Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps. “It was a wake-up call for consumers who are unprepared, alerting them to the fact that they need to take the necessary steps before the June 12 DTV transition.”

The test also served as a test of the FCC call-center system. TeleTech announced this month that it has hired 4,000 temporary workers to staff the DTV hotline. TeleTech will handle calls from the hotline from nine states: Arizona, Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The FCC in-house call center housed in Gettysburg, Penn., also has been staffed to handle an increased number of calls.

Verizon had been directing 80 percent of help-line calls to the outsourced call centers until this week. As of June 10, the allocation was changed, with 98 percent of calls going to the outsourced center.

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