DTV transition encounters static

Congress faces decision on deadline for digital TV transition

With less than a month before most TV broadcasters are required to drop their analog signals and begin transmitting exclusively in digital format, the country is ill prepared for the changeover, a pair of commissioners from the Federal Communications Commission have warned Congress.

“We are nowhere near where we should be,” commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein wrote last week to House and Senate leaders overseeing the transition. “While the FCC and others have been scrambling recently to ramp up their DTV efforts, the late start has led to a rushed effort, with little room for strategic thinking or for anticipating and fixing problems that have arisen.”

Before taking office, President Barack Obama expressed support for extending the deadline, which is set for Feb. 17. And earlier this month John Podesta, co-chairman of Obama’s transition committee, asked legislators to consider postponing the changeover.

But the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is overseeing the effort to prepare consumers by providing coupons for digital converter boxes, warned against a delay.

“This transition is of critical importance to the economy and public safety, since it will provide new communications frequencies for commercial wireless broadband services and our nation’s first responders,” outgoing Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in a Jan. 14 letter to congressional leaders.

The digital broadcast transition has freed up a swath of spectrum that has already been set aside for a nationwide public safety communications network, although what the network will look like has not been decided.

In his inaugural address, Obama referred to expanded broadband access as one of the issues the country needs to address. Much of the freed-up analog broadcast spectrum could be used for commercial development of innovative access technologies.

A linchpin to a successful digital broadcasting transition is a public awareness program and the $1.3 billion coupon program NTIA is administering to help consumers buy converter boxes. Viewers who receive TV signals over the air via an antenna rather than using digital TV sets or cable/satellite TV connections must have the boxes. Gutierrez said there are 14.3 million such households in the United States.

As of Jan. 14, nearly 45 million coupons had been mailed to more than 26 million households, but only 53 percent of them had been redeemed to buy converter boxes. Nearly 14 million of the coupons have expired without being used.

The coupon program has used all of its money and can only issue new coupons as they become available from the pool of those that have expired. Gutierrez urged Congress to make an additional $250 million available to speed the issuing of coupons to households that will need them.

Although Gutierrez was optimistic about the ability to prepare the public for digital TV through converter boxes, Copps and Adelstein said converter boxes were only one of several serious problems. They said there had been inadequate coordination between FCC and NTIA, which “has led to a patchwork of disjointed efforts on everything from consumer education to call centers to converter boxes.”

FCC has issued a request for proposals for call-center services to support the avalanche of consumer calls expected when the transition happens.

One of the largest issues remaining to be addressed is reception. Although antennas and converter boxes are available to receive the new signals, the signals have different propagation properties from the old analog signals, and many viewers who should have been adequately prepared will not get good reception. Furthermore, there are still issues to resolve regarding closed-captioning services for those with hearing impairments.

The commissioners said they do not advise delay for delay’s sake. “Any delay must be used to better prepare the American people for the DTV transition,” they wrote.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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