House to Vote on DTV Delay

"These populations are less aware of the transition, probably did not order coupons or did so quite late, and may not understand the implications of the change."

by / January 28, 2009

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The House is expected to vote today on a bill that would delay the transition from analog to digital television broadcasts until June 12th. The Senate passed the DTV Delay Act on Monday. Proponents of pushing the transition back say too many households are still without converter boxes that would allow them to receive digital broadcasts and the federal government is ill-equipped to deal with the number of consumers who are expected to have problems making the switch.

The transition may affect a significant number of households across the nation. The question is how significant is that effect? Up to 20 percent of Seattle residents who do not have a TV with a digital tuner or cable or satellite TV may be affected by the transition, according to Bill Schrier, CIO of Seattle. Schrier is also chairman of a board which governs the operation of the 800 megahertz public safety radio network in King County, Wash.

In Seattle, the need for citizens to be educated about the DTV is mostly an issue with regard young people, the elderly, immigrants and others new to the community, Schrier said. "These populations are less aware of the transition, probably did not order coupons or did so quite late, and may not understand the implications of the change."

He said that lack of access to traditional media may be a problem for some people who may also lack access to the Internet. Television provides a way for people to become aware of travel conditions and potential evacuations. "While the ability to get messages to unprepared people will be impaired by the transition, I'm not sure this is a critical issue," he said. "In the Seattle area the commercial stations have been very diligent about playing the message and community outreach. Anyone watching TV almost certainly has heard it, although they may not have acted on the message."

Only about half the affected Seattle residents have requested coupons, even though the city has engaged in extensive outreach activities in addition to those conducted by the federal government and commercial broadcasters.

"In the weeks ahead, our three most important priorities will be, as you have heard me say already, DTV, DTV and DTV," Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps said in prepared remarks to commission staff earlier this week. Copps predicted "considerable consumer disruption" when the switchover occurs on February 18th, three weeks away.

Copps acknowledged commission staff who had volunteered to educate the public about the transition, but said there is still much to be done. "There are still millions of Americans who need help to understand what they need to do to ensure continued over-the-air television reception in the digital age. It is with this stark challenge in mind that I ask today for additional FCC volunteers to come forward and help," Copps said.

As part of educating consumers on the DTV transition, the FCC has begun updating the information available on its Web site to make it more accessible.

The question of whether or not consumers will experience any interruption in service has been the subject of debate, with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) saying there are not enough coupons to meet the demand, while the head of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) said that consumer awareness of the DTV transition is well over 90 percent, and he was confident retailers would be able to supply consumer demand. "After years of coordinated work, billions of dollars of investment, and unprecedented consumer education, an eleventh hour change to the DTV transition would create enormous uncertainty for consumers," Shapiro said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Senate passed a bill that would postpone the blackout of analog television signals

until June 12th. The DTV Delay Act would extend the transition date until June 12th and broaden the FCC's authority to auction off spectrum in order cover the costs of the delay. Additionally, the bill would allow broadcasters to switch to digital before that date and permit the FCC to award vacant spectrum to public safety. The bill also contains a fix for the problems with the digital converter coupon program. The House was expected to vote on it Tuesday. If the House approves the bill, President Obama, who has supported the delay, is expected to sign it.

Senator John D. Rockefeller, who introduced the bill earlier this month, is worried that should the country experience a major disaster "we face the prospect of millions of consumers without access to television, without a lifeline for news and information that may be necessary to protect them from harm."

Further, according to Rockefeller, call centers at the FCC and the Department of Commerce are not equipped to deal with volume of calls expected on February 17th from consumers who did not make the transition in time.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) expects to receive almost 1.5 million calls on the days immediately following the transition but at current capacity their call center will be able to process only 350,000 of those calls each day.