FCC plans DTV hearings around the country

by Chloe Albanesius, PC Magazine

Having just wrapped its white spaces tour, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will hit the road once again to educate consumers about the upcoming digital television transition.

The five commissioners and FCC staff will fan out across the nation over the next few months to ensure that citizens are not left in the dark come February 17, 2009.

"As part of our efforts to prepare consumers for the transition, we have identified television markets in which the largest number of viewers will have to take action to be prepared for the transition six months from now," chairman Kevin Martin said at a press conference in Washington Monday. "This unprecedented nationwide tour by the entire commission is part of our commitment to prepare and educate consumers about the digital television transition."

In order to free up valuable spectrum, television broadcasters will shift from analog to digital signals on February 17, 2009. That transition, however, will render analog TV sets without digital set-top boxes useless, so lawmakers, consumer electronics manufacturers and interest groups have been ramping up DTV awareness campaigns of late.

The FCC's first stop will be in Anchorage, Alaska on August 27. In each city, an FCC representative will host an event like a town hall meeting, workshop, or roundtable on DTV, the FCC said.

The FCC will also work with local broadcasters to increase the number of DTV-related public service announcements, and coordinate with the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to explore the feasibility of running DTV transition tests in certain markets before the February switch date.

Other scheduled cities on the tour include Baltimore, San Francisco, Austin, Houston, Memphis, New York, Boise, Atlanta, Nashville, Denver, Seattle, Spokane, Portland, and Chicago, as well as Missoula, Helena, and Bozeman in Montana, Fairbanks, Alaska, and Yakima, Washington.

The FCC selected cities where more than 100,000 households, or at least 15 percent, relied solely on over-the-air signals for television, according to the FCC.

Consumers who subscribe to cable or those who already have digital TVs will not be affected by the transition. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) reported in December that more than 50 percent of U.S. homes already have DTVs, but a later report from CEA found that 12.5 million Americans, or 11 percent, are still using over-the-air televisions.

The government has set up a program within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to provide two, $40 converter box coupons for consumers with over-the-air TVs, or rabbit ears.

The awareness campaign is currently scheduled through December 29 with a stopover in Phoenix, but the FCC plans to add more cities, including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Salt Lake City.

When the transition does occur, meanwhile, there will be open, unregulated spectrum between the digital channels, or white spaces, that Internet companies like Google and Microsoft want to use for wireless broadband service.

Google on Monday announced that it would spearhead an effort to promote the use of white spaces. Dubbed Free the Airwaves, the Web-based initiative features video testimonials from white spaces advocates.

"You don't need to be a telecommunications expert to understand that freeing the 'white spaces' has the potential to transform wireless Internet as we know it," Minnie Ingersoll, product manager for Google's Alternative Access Team, wrote in a blog post.

Free the Airwaves calls on visitors to film their own video responses, sign a petition to the FCC, and contact elected officials.

"When it comes to opening these airwaves, we believe the public interest is clear. But we also want to be transparent about our involvement - Google has a clear business interest in expanding access to the web," she continued. "There's no doubt that if these airwaves are opened up to unlicensed use, more people will be using the Internet. That's certainly good for Google (not to mention many of our industry peers) but we also think that it's good for consumers."

article originally published at http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2328280,00.asp.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey