FCC claims 99 percent success in DTV shift

by Chloe Albanesius, PC Magazine

With the digital television transition just five months away, members of a House panel Tuesday grilled officials on their preparedness and questioned why the Commerce Department has requested additional funds to carry out its DTV plans.

"The good news is that we have 154 days left prior to the national analog shut-off. The bad news is that we have only 154 days left prior to the shut-off," said Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecom and the Internet.

"That leaves us precious little time for the FCC, NTIA, and the industry to make final preparations and contingency plans for several key aspects of the transition," he said.

Congress has ordered TV broadcasters to switch from analog to digital signals by February 17, 2009 in order to free up spectrum for public safety use. After that deadline, consumers will have to swap their analog TVs for digital sets, subscribe to cable, or attach a digital converter box to their analog televisions in order to receive a signal.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is overseeing the distribution of $40, government-funded coupons for DTV converter boxes. Every American is entitled to two coupons.

Since the program launched in January, NTIA has received 27 million requests from 14 million U.S. households, Meredith Baker, acting NTIA chief, told the subcommittee. Approximately 10 million, or 49 percent, of those coupons have been redeemed at local retailers. At this point, the agency is averaging 111,000 coupon requests per day.

Converter boxes are available at 29,000 retail outlets, 13 phone retailers, and 35 online sellers, including Amazon.com, she said.

Though Baker told Congress earlier this year that NTIA would not need additional funds to carry out the converter box program, the agency on Thursday submitted draft legislation to the subcommittee that requests an additional $7 million to cover administrative costs.

The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act allocated $990 million for a converter box subsidy program, of which $100 million can be used for administrative purposes. Congress also capped DTV education and outreach spending at $5 million.

If NTIA finds that that is not enough money, they must notify Congress, and 60 days after that notification, NTIA can receive an additional $510 million, of which $60 million can cover administrative expenses.

That equals a total of $160 million for administrative costs and $1.34 billion for program costs. NTIA wants to tap into the $1.34 billion for administrative purposes since, the agency said, it will probably only need about $1 billion to distribute 50 million coupons.

An extra $7 million would "provide NTIA with flexibility so that it can continue to distribute coupons … to meet additional consumer demand," Lily Fu Claffee, general counsel for the Commerce Department, wrote in a letter to the subcommittee.

"NTIA wants to be as prepared as it can be" for the transition, Baker said. The draft legislation is a "responsible and prudent response."

Markey was not convinced, and penned his own letter Monday asking NTIA to inform the subcommittee by September 19 why it did not mention this need earlier and to be more specific on how additional funds will help its mission.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was similarly skeptical. Mark Goldstein, director of the physical infrastructures issues department at GAO, said that NTIA "has no specific plans to address a demand" in coupon requests. As a result, "consumers might incur a significant wait" for vouchers, he said.

Wilmington makes the switch

The FCC traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina last week for a test run of the DTV switch. After four months of outreach in the community and several, brief soft tests, the commission flipped the switch for the area's 400,000 TV viewers on September 8.

The FCC received approximately 800 calls regarding the switch on day one, said FCC chairman Kevin Martin. That number decreased by half on day two. In total, the agency has received approximately 1,800 complaint calls, or about 1 percent of residents.

Ninety-one callers had no knowledge of the DTV transition whatsoever while 162 knew about it but took no action, Martin said.

Of those 800 calls, 329 were related to problems with the converter boxes. In most cases, however, consumers had hooked up their boxes correctly but were unaware that they had to press a button on the device so that it could scan for and then display digital channels.

Several residents, however, ran into problems with revamped coverage areas created by the DTV transition.

On the analog system, for example, residents could access the local Wilmington NBC affiliate as far south as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and as far north as Raleigh, North Carolina. With digital, however, these out-of-market communities no longer have access. Many consumers who previously tuned into Wilmington will be able to access Myrtle Beach or Raleigh broadcasts, but a small number of residents in between have been cut off from an NBC affiliate entirely.

Martin predicted that approximately 15 percent of markets nationwide will see their coverage areas shrink significantly after the switch.

"The commission is currently exploring what steps can be taken to address this problem in Wilmington and minimize the burden on viewers throughout the country," Martin said.

The chairman has ordered FCC engineers to identify the possibly affected markets as soon as possible, and told the subcommittee that information should be available in the next few weeks.

Another issue that cropped up was the "digital cliff". With analog sets, a TV will become snowy or display static as the reception fades, but on digital TV sets, the screen simply goes black.

Approximately 5 percent of the 15 percent of consumers with analog sets will probably need new antennas to avoid the digital cliff, Martin said.

He was not overly concerned that this will present a huge problem, however. Of the 960 calls the FCC received regarding reception and technical issues, 553 were in regards to the NBC affiliate.

"Even if we assume that all of the remaining 397 calls were caused by the 'cliff effect,' these represent less than approximately 0.25 percent of all viewers in the Wilmington market," he said.

Martin did acknowledge that while the 99 percent success rate in Wilmington was commendable, 1 percent is still "a lot of people" on a nationwide scale.

Going forward, there needs to be more education about how the converter boxes actually work, Martin said.

article originally published at http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2330503,00.asp.

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