DTV transition in legislative limbo

Two weeks before the deadline, many households still are unprepared for the death of analog TV. Meanwhile, Congress considers a four-month delay.

Two weeks before the deadline for broadcast TV stations to turn off their analog signals and begin transmitting exclusively with digital signals, millions of households still are unprepared for the transition. Consumer and civil rights advocates today called on Congress to grant more time to prepare the public.

A bill that would delay much of the transition until June, which failed last week to pass in the House, is expected to come before the House for a second vote tomorrow.

“We very much support the delay of the DTV transition,” Mark Lloyd, vice president of strategic initiatives for the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, said in a news conference.

The delay is not a fix in itself, Lloyd said, but an opportunity to complete the work remaining to be done to ensure that communities most at risk — the poor, disabled, elderly and those speaking languages other than English — are not jeopardized by the loss of a vital source of information.

The move from traditional analog signals was mandated in the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005. Because digital technology is more efficient, allowing more data to be transmitted in narrower bands, and the transition will free up large blocks of RF spectrum. Making this spectrum available is seen as crucial for the development of new commercial wireless services, including delivery of broadband Internet access to currently unserved and underserved areas, as well as for the creation of an interoperable, national public safety network that would allow first responders from different regions to communicate more easily during emergencies.

However, the transition also is seen as a public safety risk in which millions of households that rely on over-the-air broadcast signals rather than cable or satellite services could be cut off from television service if they are not equipped for digital TV.

Television sets being manufactured now are equipped to receive digital signals and many households now relying on cable and satellite TV systems will not be affected by the broadcast transition. But the Nielsen Co. estimated in January that more than 6.5 million households, about 5.7 percent of all homes, were not prepared for the transition. African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and those under age 35 are the most likely to be unprepared, the company found.

Tania Maria Rosario, a community worker in Seattle with the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, said, “We have discovered a lot of folks who are unaware of the transition. We have many folks who have installed the converter boxes who are still having trouble getting a signal.”

Because the propagation qualities of digital signals are different from those of analog, new antennas also might be needed in some households and quality of reception could be affected, depending on the location of the viewer. Little has been done to date to educate viewers about changes that might be necessary beyond buying a converter box or a digital television set.

Also, homes could lose cable or satellite service during an emergency such as a storm and be left without the ability to receive over-the-air broadcast signals.

The January figure for unprepared homes is a 1.3 million household improvement from December, Nielsen found, indicating that additional time could be crucial in getting homes prepared.

“This is a complicated transition,” Lloyd said, and it would be unfair for the disadvantaged to bear the financial burden of a government-mandated program.

Congress has attempted to lighten that burden with a program to provide to households coupons worth $40 toward the purchase of a digital converter box. But that program, administered by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), has run into problems and temporarily maxed out its coupon budget.

“A delay will give the federal government time to fix the many flaws of the coupon program,” said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for the Consumers Union, said at the press conference.

The NTIA has put more than 1.5 million households on a waiting list for coupons, which could become available as coupons already issued expire without being redeemed. The redemption rate for coupons so far is slightly more than 50 percent. Many expired without being redeemed within 90 days because converter boxes were not readily available in many markets.

The DTV Delay Act passed the Senate last week, but failed to muster the necessary two-thirds majority needed to pass when brought up under special rules in the House. The bill was reintroduced and passed in the Senate as S. 352  and is scheduled to be considered under regular House rules tomorrow, when it is widely expected to pass.

The act would delay the transition until June 12 and also would continue the converter box coupon program and extend the licenses for recovered RF spectrum that were auctioned off by the Federal Communications Commission for more than $20 billion in anticipation of the transition. The licenses, and deadlines for building out infrastructure to use the spectrum, would be extended by 116 days.

The act would allow broadcasters to switch off analog signals prior to the June 13 deadline if they are ready. The FCC could allow the use of the early use of freed-up spectrum that has been set aside for public safety networks, but this option also introduces another layer of complexity. The city of Wilmington, S.C., and Hawaii already have made the conversion, and nationally about 50 stations are believed to have switched off analog signals early. Even if the deadline for the transition is extended, some observers estimate that as many as 300 stations could switch off analog signals before the new June deadline, creating a patchwork of analog and digital TV service across the country.

For this reason, the Leadership Council and Consumers Union are conducting their outreach and education programs as if Feb. 17 will remain the drop-dead date for analog television.

“The least confusing part of the transition for consumers is the date,” Kelsey said, so extending the deadline still would do more good than harm, he said. That time could be used to ensure viewers understand the change and have an opportunity to adjust to it. “The potential for education in the right way is out there.”

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