‘Train Wreck’ Expected for TV Transition

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Time is running out for millions of the nation’s consumers who are unaware and unprepared for the television switch from analog to digital on February 17, 2009.

FCC Comissioner Jonathan Adelstein said during the National Convention on Media Reform in Minneapolis in June 2008 that the FCC’s lack of a technical assistance plan for America’s DTV transition is “an opportunity for a train wreck.”
Photo by Mary C. Johns

With just a few months before the digital television transition, a large number of Americans, especially in the West and Midwest, major metropolitan and rural areas, don’t know how to make sure they continue receiving the over-the-air signals, according to several academic researchers, two members of the Federal Communication Commission and some U.S. Congressmen.

Federal Communications Commissioner Michael J. Copps said during the National Convention on Media Reform in Minneapolis in June 2008, that there might be a need for TVs to be rescanned during the digital TV transition in February 2009.
Photo by Mary C. Johns

The researchers, legislators and officials predicted that many TV sets will not work if they don’t have the proper antennas to go with their converter boxes, or if a person doesn’t have the right type of TV set programmed for their particular converter box. Some TVs will have to be rescanned, and reports suggest stores do not have enough converter boxes and antennas, which are needed before consumers’ free federal coupons expire.

Most recently, Illinois’ senior senator expressed concerns about a large number of consumers in his district having coupons which will expire before they had the opportunity to purchase a converter box, and about a lack of available converter boxes in certain rural areas.

Congress passed a law that will require television stations to stop broadcasting on analog channels and switch to digital signals in order to “free up airspace for other services, including police, fire, and other emergency services,” such as tornado warnings, news on school closings or other breaking news, according to data from civilrights.org, a web site produced by a broad coalition of organizations including the National Council of Negro Women, AARP and the Asian American Justice Center.

A vast majority of Americans will benefit from the switch from old analog to new digital signals by getting clearer pictures and better sound quality. Broadcasters will be able to transmit more channels.

But 21 million households – including those on fixed-incomes, seniors, minorities and individuals with disabilities – may be “hard hit by the transition,” according to researchers who presented their findings at “DTV Transition: Will Your TV Go Dark?” at the National Convention on Media Reform in Minneapolis in June.

A Converter Box Shortage in Illinois?
Illinois residents are already experiencing problems in getting their converters because free federal coupons which were supposed to pay for them have expired, and there is a shortage of converter boxes in certain areas, according to a recent report by U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL).

In September, Durbin announced that he had received many complaints from constituents about the availability of converter boxes. In a letter to the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA), Durbin urged the agency to allow consumers with expired coupons to reapply.

“In Illinois, 1.3 million coupons have been requested but only 530,000 have been redeemed and nearly 400,000 have already expired,” the senator wrote. “As many as 700,000 households in my state rely on analog sets, and many of these households are low-income, elderly, disabled, non-English speaking, minority, or live in rural areas.”

In a press release, Durbin added that “the lack of response to the coupon program highlights concerns that households are not receiving information about, or not understanding the implications of, next February’s transition.”

RJ called the NTIA to see how they would address Durbin’s concerns.

Bart Forbes, a public affairs specialist at the Washington, D. C.-based NTIA, told RJ in a phone interview they could not change the rules and allow consumers to reapply for the coupons, even if they had expired.

“The U. S. Congress passed a law which stipulates that we may mail only two coupons per household,” Forbes said.

“However, if people will let their coupons expire, they can ask a friend or family member to request two coupons using their household address because the coupons are transferable.”

Forbes said the agency provides consumers with lists of retailers who have the converter boxes as well as on-line vendors. He urged consumers to apply for the coupon now, buy the converter box and begin using it immediately.

Max Gleischman, Sen. Durbin’s press secretary, told RJ during a phone interview that NTIA could allow consumers to reapply for their expired coupons, but are not doing so because they are misinterpreting the law.

“What I think we have in this case is that the agency is interpreting the law differently from how the lawmakers who drafted the law intended it to be interpreted,” Gleischman said.

FCC Officials Worry About the DTV Transition
On June 7, 2008, Federal Communication Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael J. Copps, along with U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), discussed their concerns about the digital television transition during a workshop at the National Convention on Media Reform in Minneapolis. Copps discussed numerous potential “unknowns” in the transition.

“There are a lot of technical things we don’t know about such as, how well do those new digital signals travel? Do they travel the way analog TV signals travel? How many people will need new antennas to receive digital? And if they do, are those outdoor antennas for digital when they only needed rabbit ears for their analog sets?”

Copps also said he was seeking information from FCC chairman Kevin Martin about whether televisions would need to be ‘re-scanned.’

Copps said, “Just imagine what’s going to happen if that is true. You get your converter box, you hook that into the set, you go get a new antenna if you need that, you go through all this stuff, you turn on the TV and there’s still snow there because maybe you had to rescan your set.”

Copps called for more field tests to identify and address unexpected problems.

Commissioner Adelstein said the FCC’s lack of a technical assistance plan for America’s DTV transitions is “an opportunity for a train wreck.”

“In England, they spent the equivalent of a billion dollars on a technical assistance site program,” Adelstein said. “Now, who’s going to help the seniors? Who’s going to help those with disabilities? Who’s going to help people who can’t do it on their own in this country?

“There really is a lack of preparations that is astounding given the magnitude of what we’re doing here. It takes a long time to get a plan in place to help out tens of millions of Americans on one day to get all of those resources in place. We’d better figure out a way to do it and fast.”

U.S. Rep. Doyle said congressional members were looking at the results of the test market in North Carolina.

“When I think about 50 million television sets going dark in the middle of somebody’s favorite program, and then the calls starting to come down to Washington D. C., that’s scaring a lot of members of Congress. So I think we want to try to help these guys out during this test market to get it better,” he said.

How to Prepare Yourself for the DTV Transition
Civilrights.org recommends that if you currently use a rabbit ears or a rooftop antenna for your analog television set, you have three options for your television to continue working on February 17 and beyond:
1. You can get a converter box, a small electronic device that plugs into your TV. But you have to purchase the right one. There are over 60 approved digital converter boxes with some best suited for rural and others better for big cities. You will also continue to need the correct antenna. Until March 31, 2009, the federal government is offering a free $40 coupon for the converter boxes. Every household can request up to two coupons. The converter boxes cost between $40 and $70.
2. Another choice is to subscribe to cable, satellite, or other pay television service which does not need a converter box.
3. You can purchase a new digital television with a built-in tuner to receive the broadcast signals. If you have a new digital television purchased in the last few years, you may already have the ability to receive the digital signal and you do not have to purchase a converter box. But you should check your owner’s manual if you are not sure if your television has a built-in tuner.

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