Commerce agency smooths transition to digital TV

Not limiting the effort to online channels helped NTIA succeed

TV Converter Coupon Box Program


Agency: National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Commerce Department

Technology:  Web site, social media applications, along with traditional channels such as bus signs, radio and television advertisements.

If you watched TV at all during 2008, you no doubt remember those ads that encouraged you to contact DTV2009.

The ad campaign was part of a program, known as the Digital TV Transition, to switch households from analog to digital TV.

The transition of millions of households to digital broadcasting wouldn't have been possible without a Web-centric approach, said Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, associate administrator at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a part of the Commerce Department. 

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Congress charged NTIA with the task of ensuring that 21 million households moved to all-digital TV sets. NTIA came up with a plan to offer owners of analog TV sets coupons that they could use to buy digital converter boxes by June 12, 2009, when all broadcast stations would go digital.

The switch to all-digital broadcasting freed parts of the broadcast spectrum for public safety communications that police, fire departments and rescue squads could use during emergencies. Digital broadcasting also allows TV stations to deliver better picture and sound quality.

“In 2008, we were ready to go,” McGuire-Rivera said during a recent government Web managers conference on Web development and new media. The obstacle was the 21 million households that still had analog TV sets that wouldn’t work with digital.

The U.S. public is great when it comes to caring about fuel efficiency and assistance for earthquake victims. However, research showed “that no private citizen was ready to scrap a perfectly good television in the name of spectrum efficiency,” McGuire-Rivera said.

NTIA earned a GSA Citizens Service Award for managing the TV Converter Box Coupon Program.

Digital TV conversion site

Congress hardly gave NTIA enough time — two years — or enough money — $2 billion — to convert all the TVs, set up technical standards, invent the converter box, certify products, educate consumers and send coupons to people.

“We decided we couldn’t operate like a government program," McGuire-Rivera said. "There were too many players and not enough time." There were 64 million coupon requests.

One of the lessons that NTIA learned was to avoid reinventing the wheel. Rather, the agency looked for processes that made it easy for people to participate. For instance, people could use a variant of a Visa debit card to purchase the converter, just as they would for other electronic products.

NTIA invested in focus groups, which helped officials avoid publishing memos and documents on a Web site that the average person might find difficult to understand. Agency writers sought to deliver content targeted for fourth- to sixth-grade reading levels.

A second lesson: find partners with deep hearts and deep pockets, McGuire-Rivera said. Media companies donated more than $1 billion in advertising. Community groups helped people who had a hard time getting coupons. With government incentives, electronics manufacturers quickly moved converters to market.

With a program such as the TV Converter Coupon Program, NTIA had to be vigilant for waste, fraud and abuse. The Web played a role, enabling vendors to collaborate online. In addition, retailers could be certified online using the Visa system, and all information on the consumers and retailers could be checked by a variety of databases.

Security of private information also was a major concern, especially when agencies need to host Web sites outside the agency, McGuire-Rivera said. Web managers needed to work closely with security personnel to help them understand technical fixes and how an agency can use new media, McGuire-Rivera said.

And finally, not everyone has access to high-speed Internet, so using multiple channels was the best way to approach public engagement. However, every aspect of the program pushed people to the Web. For instance, NTIA sought to reach consumers through bus signs, radio, social media and TV — “but everything ties back to the Web,” she said.

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