DTV transition moving forward


There wasn’t much new put on the table at the Senate Commerce Committee’s DTV hearing. In fact, it was sparsely attended in terms of actual senators, who are trying to leave town and have an extremely compelling Wall Street distraction in front of them. But let’s congratulate Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) for a refreshing outburst of honesty. Asking various agency witnesses, the FCC’s Kevin Martin in particular, if they have enough money to pull the DTV transition off 2/17/09, he said he wasn’t criticizing anybody, and blamed Congress for not bothering to properly fund a comprehensive DTV education program as was done in Great Britain. He is promising to get an additional $20M to Martin for further outreach – Martin said that would be useful but couldn’t say if it would be enough.

Much discussion centered on outreach to at risk populations, particularly the elderly. Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said his town has had great success using fire department personnel to help befuddled citizens (doubling the value of their visit by doing a smoke alarm check). And Josefina Carbonell of HHS says local providers who see shut-in elderlies are being encouraged and trained to use their often daily visits to check DTV preparedness.

A big lesson from Wilmington has been to get citizens to get ready for the transition well in advance, so that we don’t have the entire nation trying to resolve problems at once on deadline day.

Speaking to the problem of lost coverage, as in the case of NBC WECT, which in analog stretched from Raleigh to Myrtle Beach but is more centered on Wilmington in digital. Martin noted that citizens on the poles should be able to get NBC programming from the polar markets. The problem is people in between Wilmington and Raleigh, or Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, and end up getting no NBC station at all. Martin said in such cases they’ll be looking at licensing repeater stations to fill in coverage.

RBR/TVBR observation: The citizens of the US will owe a huge thank you to NAB, NCTA and other organizations that are in fact footing the bill for DTV education, to the tune of $1.4B. And that’s not some propaganda number from some press agent somewhere. That number is from the Government Accountability Office. Way to go, NAB!

Testimony summaries

Kevin J. Martin, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission: The measure of success of Wilmington will be what happens in February. Vast majority there were aware of transition and prepared for it. Difficult-to-resolve problems include lost access to stations due to contour changes – WECT no longer available all the way from Raleigh to Myrtle Beach. Not too much signal loss due to cliff effect, involving less than 1% of households.

Meredith Attwell Baker, Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Communications and Information, National Telecommunications Information Administration: 10M coupons redeemed, 49.3% of all coupons distributed. 158 certified boxes, 83 with analog passthrough. Participation by over-air-only households is on track, working at improving participation in markets that seem below par. Teaching consumers to apply, try and buy, and avoid waiting until the last minute. Nursing homes etc. being included in the program. Congress is working to give flexibility/funding to continue program through the end of the project. 44.5M coupons as it stands, flexibility will take that number up to 50.5M coupons.

Josefina Carbonell, Assistant Secretary for Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging: HHS participation in the DTV transition is reaching out to the most at-risk populations, including the unique needs of older Americans. Working to provide hands-on assistance where it’s needed.

Mark Goldstein, Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues, U.S. Government Accountability Office: NAB, NCTA have combined to spend $1.4B to promote the transition. FCC & NTIA have worked on public education programs, focusing on at-risk groups. NTIA has done a good job with coupon program so far but plans going ahead are unclear. Spike in demand for coupons is likely; a flood of requests may slow down return rate; but there seems to be no plan for this eventuality.

Bill Saffo, Mayor, Wilmington, North Carolina: FCC even set up a temporary office in the local chamber of commerce. Comprehensive educational effort went everywhere. Broadcasters saturated the airwaves with information. Private-public partnership was a key to success. First responders were kept in the loop. Contact with the elderly using rabbit ear antennae was critical. Vast majority of post-transition calls seem to have come from seniors having trouble getting converter boxes operating correctly. 80% of residents with problems helped over the phone; 20% required visit. Used fire department, who made it a double-value trip by checking for working smoke alarms. Common converter box problem was simply failure to run autoscan. Biggest suggestion: Get public to act early; make sure knowledgeable staff is ready to answer the phone immediately.