Are we ready for next winter's DTV transition?

by Bob Williams, Hear Us Now

Earlier this week the two top government officials in charge of the upcoming transition to digital television trundled up to Capitol Hill to report on how it’s going.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin and National Telecommunications and Information Administration Acting Director Meredith A. Baker demurred when requested to give a letter grade to their agencies efforts so far. Both artfully answered “incomplete.”

Led by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who called the hearing, several lawmakers told Martin and Baker they are extremely worried millions of consumers who depend on free, over-the-air television will be left in the dark when full power broadcasters are required to switch to all digital signals in February 2009.

“I've just got my fingers crossed,” Inouye said. “I hope everything turns out well.”

We have our fingers crossed too, but we would feel a lot better if the lawmakers and government bureaucrats in charge of this landmark transition – arguably the biggest change in broadcasting since the advent of color television – were doing a whole lot more than they have so far to make sure this massive conversion comes off as problem free as possible.

At the top of our list would be immediate action by NTIA and/or Congress to address the problem of a 90-day expiration date on government-issued coupons intended to help consumers purchase digital converter boxes so their old-style, analog televisions will continue to work after the digital transition.

Currently, the $40 government coupons, which are issued as part of $1.5 billion program run by NTIA, expire 90 days after they are issued, with no option of replacement or reissue.

NTIA has the authority to allow consumers to reapply if their coupons have expired but not been used, or Congress could extend the 90-day deadline. Both options would allow consumers to have greater access to a wider variety of converter boxes, which have been slow to come on the market.

While the conversion is less is than a year away, many retailers have only one or two models of the converter boxes in stock, forcing consumers to choose from pricier converter options to prevent the coupons from expiring.

A brief sample of online retailers Best Buy, Circuit City, Radio Shack, and Wal-mart by our sister organization, Consumer Reports Online, found that each had just one or two boxes. Of the boxes listed, all but two cost $60; only Wal-mart had lower-priced models, for $50 and $53. With these four retailers, the coupons cannot be used if making the purchase online, the government coupons must be redeemed in person at the retail store, or by phone from Radio Shack and Best Buy.

Echostar has said it will be releasing a converter this summer that will cost about $40, which would mean no out-of-pocket expense for consumers with a coupon, but the introduction of that model has already been delayed once due to manufacturing problems and it remains unclear when it will actually be available.

“There are a limited number of coupons and they expire,” said Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, the publisher of this blog. “Consumers that were proactive and requested coupons early will have fewer choices when they go to buy the boxes,” added Kelsey. “We are expecting more converter boxes on the market in a few months, which might be too late for consumers who requested their coupons early.”

Several senators also voiced concerns that not enough was being done to reach out to consumers, especially seniors and low income consumers, who are generally much more dependent on over-the-air broadcasting.

We share those worries, in no small part because of a Consumers Union survey put out a few weeks ago.

Among the more troubling findings was that 74 percent of the respondents who said they were aware of the upcoming transition to all digital broadcasting have serious misconceptions about its actual impact on them and what steps they need to take to keep their TVs working after the switchover.

Both Martin and Baker told the Senate panel their agencies were working hard to educate consumers. They said broadcasters, electronics manufacturers and other industry players are also working hard on getting the word out.

If you are a consumer who wants to know more about the digital transition and what to do – besides crossing your fingers – you can go to Consumer Reports Online’s DTV transition web page.

And it might not be a bad idea to rub your rabbit ear antenna for luck, just to be on the safe side.

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