DTV Snags Loom Large Despite Delay
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WASHINGTON -- Despite the four month reprieve Congress recently granted for the DTV transition, the migration to all-digital TV broadcasts is going to be a bumpy road, according to Michael Copps, the interim chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
The transition is being closely watched by many, from consumers and consumer advocates, to local TV stations, Internet firms and wireless carriers. The spectrum vacated by the analog shut-off is intended to be used for advanced wireless broadband networks and a nationwide public-safety communications system.
Broadcasters will have until June 12 to shut off their analog transmissions to give consumers more time to prepare, if President Obama signs the DTV delay bill into law, as expected. But the problem is that nearly 500 television stations around the country are planning to go ahead with the original date of Feb. 17.
"Dislocation and confusion are coming February 17th and 18th," Copps told reporters at a press conference this morning. "We are six days from the most demanding consumer technology-transition in the history of broadcast."
Copps praised Congress for extending the mandatory transition, saying that the only thing worse than what's coming next week would be if all broadcasters had been required to stick with the original date.
The concern stems from the estimated 20 million households still unprepared for the transition. Among those, the poor, elderly and minority have been identified as especially vulnerable.
Older TV sets that still receive broadcasts over the air, as opposed to cable or satellite transmissions, will require a converter box to receive digital transmissions. The federal government has been issuing coupons to defray part of the cost of those boxes, but the agency administering the program has run out of money, and the waiting list has swelled to more than 3 million.
Many consumers have also seen their coupons expire before they could purchase a converter box, and some retailers have reported inventory shortages.
The DTV delay bill did not provide any funding for the coupon program, but the economic stimulus bill currently under debate in Congress would allocate $650 million to ensure that every consumer who still needs a converter box can get one at a discount.
The FCC recently asked the nearly 1,800 U.S. television stations if they planned to shut off their analog signals on or before Feb. 17, and posted the results on its Web site (PDF here).
With nearly 40 percent of stations planning to go all-digital by next week, the FCC is reserving the right to intervene and require certain stations in markets deemed vulnerable to continue their analog broadcasts. The agency has identified about 20 markets where all stations plan to shut off their signals.
The major networks have pledged to continue broadcasting in analog until June 12, but they own and operate only a small portion of their affiliate stations throughout the country.
[cob:Special_Report]Copps, who recently took the chairmanship on an interim basis after the resignation of Kevin Martin, was critical of the agency's management of the transition.
"For the better part of two years I think this agency kind of went about its DETV work with what I would call an anemic strategy in the happy but mistaken belief that the transition would somehow take care of itself," he said. In the last six months, he said the FCC began to grasp the "enormity" of the task, but too much time had been lost.
Chief among the FCC's priorities going forward is to ensure that its call centers are equipped to handle the expected crush of phone calls from confused consumers in the next week.