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Former FCC chairs join call to postpone DTV shift
Submitted by jonathan on Fri, 2009-01-09 15:04
by William Kennard, Michael Powell
The countdown clock is ticking on the digital television transition and it is becoming increasingly clear that the nation will not be ready. Analog television broadcasts are scheduled to stop on Feb. 17 and, after that, only digital signals are to be available. Then millions of Americans who rely on analog TV sets and antennas must start using converter boxes that will allow them to receive digital signals, or see only a black screen.
In 2005, Congress devised a program meant to ensure that this transition would be smooth. But with 40 days to go, it is now clear that we are heading for a train wreck — unless Congress delays the transition for a few months to allow more time to prepare.
People who subscribe to cable or satellite services or have a newer television with a digital tuner are not at risk of losing their programming. But as many as 19 million American households still rely solely on over-the-air analog television, and perhaps another 19 million use over-the-air in combination with cable or satellite. This population is disproportionately made up of poorer households, the elderly and members of minority groups.
To ease the burden of buying a converter box, Congress appropriated $1.34 billion for 33.5 million $40 coupons that can be redeemed at stores where the boxes are sold. (Boxes cost $40 to $80.) People who want these coupons must apply for them from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and then it takes about four to six weeks for them to arrive in the mail. After 90 days, the coupons expire and no one is allowed to request a second one.
Demand for the coupons has been much greater than expected. More than 46 million requests have come in. And there aren’t enough coupons to go around. Starting this week, all new requests are being put on a waiting list. No additional coupons can be issued until those already issued expire.
Of course, it is already too late to apply for a coupon and receive it before Feb. 17.
And coupons or no coupons, there is a real danger that there will not be enough converter boxes on store shelves to meet demand. So far 18 million boxes have been purchased using coupons, and an estimated 11 million are in inventory. But total demand is estimated to be 33 million to 60 million units. So there could easily be a shortage of 4 million to 31 million.
The government is also unprepared to handle the volume of calls from baffled television viewers once the switch to digital occurs. Nearly 1.5 million calls are expected to come into a special Federal Communications Commission call center on each of the two days following the transition, but this center will be able to handle only about 350,000 calls a day.
Moreover, many people will need help hooking up their converter boxes and setting up their antennas. (Picking up the digital signal may require reorienting or moving an antenna, or buying a more powerful digital antenna.) The government should train community groups to give assistance to those who need it.
By delaying the switch to digital by just a few months, and spending more money on the program — which the Obama transition team hinted on Thursday that it might favor — we could provide enough coupons and establish a stronger call center. There would be time for manufacturers to put more converter boxes in the pipeline. And we’d have enough time to work with community groups to provide technical assistance and support to the people who need it.
If the transition to digital TV goes badly, it will inconvenience millions. There is no reason to rush toward a fiasco when we can just as well take the time to make sure the change happens smoothly.
William Kennard was the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1997 to 2001 and is a member of The New York Times board of directors. Michael Powell was the F.C.C. chairman from 2001 to 2005.article originally published at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/09/opinion/09kennard.html.