Commissioners Welcome DTV Delay, but Concerns Remain on Consumer Outreach

Wireless February 5th, 2009

, Reporter, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, February 5, 2009 – The three members of the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday expressed relief over Congress’ Wednesday passage of legislation delaying the date of the digital television transition from February 17 to June 12.

Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps did not present any “grand plan” of action for the next four months, but said at a monthly meeting that it was still important to “take stock of where we are” and assess what kind of efforts will be necessary to create a “new and effective game plan.”

The DTV Delay Act was pushed by advisors to President Obama, and the president is expected to shortly sign the legislation. Former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin had opposed – as had the consumer electronic industry – although his predecessors Michael Powell and Bill Kennard joined Obama in seeking a short extension.

Copps, a Democrat, said it had “long been clear…that we were not ready for a nationwide transition on February 17.”

Copps welcomed the commitments of broadcasters to “step up to the plate” and keep their analog signals on the air until the new transition date.

By keeping their analog signals up until June, Copps praised broadcasters as “truly serving the public interest.” But the delay should not be used by anyone to “take a break,” he warned.

Instead, Copps stressed the need for all stakeholders to “redouble our efforts” and work together to make the transition successful. “Working together, we can make a huge difference for consumers.”

With the new delay, “unprecedented cooperation is finally underway,” said Commissioner Jonathan Adelsten, a Democrat. He said prior efforts on the DTV transition were “not ready for prime time.”

Adelstein said he remained “deeply concerned” about the availability of enough converter boxes – as well as whether FCC-sponsored DTV outreach call centers are delivering a consistent quality of service.

Outreach efforts should initially target at-risk communities, but in the coming months they should shift to a “nationally coordinated, but locally based grassroots effort” targeting all affected consumers, Adelstein said.

The transition will be “messy, regardless of when it happens,” said Commissioner Robert McDowell, a Republican. McDowell noted that he had been warning about potential problems for some time now, and welcomed the extra time Congress has given broadcasters and consumers to prepare. “Now is not the time to play the Washington blame game,” he said.

McDowell also expressed concern that there were two million Americans on a waiting list for government sponsored coupons.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which administers the coupon box program, also welcomed the additional time presented by the delay, Acting NTIA Administrator Anna Gomez said in a statement.

Acknowledging the need for improvements in the coupon program, Gomez stressed that NTIA could not provide more coupons without additional budget authority.

The extra four months would allow for more outreach by the commissioners, said FCC Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Chief Cathy Seidel. Seidel praised the FCC’s efforts leading up to the transition, and suggested that continuing the same kinds of programs in the interval before the new transition date would be helpful in alleviating remaining concerns.

With adequate funding, the backlog in the government’s DTV converter box coupon could be cleared in approximately three weeks, said NTIA Consumer Education Director Tony Wilhelm said. Despite fears of shortages, Wilhelm told Adelstein that retailers have been a “great partner” in helping to execute the coupon program so far.

The new cutoff date could pose unintended consequences, Seidel said. Consumers could interpret the delay as a reason to not take action, she said. Putting out a clear message to consumers about the new transition date will be a major concern, she said. “There is no downside to acting now.”

Wilhelm similarly cautioned the commissioners that consumers whose coupons have expired need to be informed that they will be allowed to have them re-issued. But re-issuing coupons will require time to complete a new rulemaking process, he said.

NTIA is currently in discussions to cut down on the three week turnaround time required to issue new coupons, it will take until at least early April until those new coupons could hit the mail, he said.

Even in a “best case scenario,” millions of people could be left in the dark, McDowell warned, given the number of available coupons and capacity of the NTIA’s factory.

McDowell expressed dismay over a “lack of ownership” for outreach in many individual markets, asking Seidel why every community did not have someone who could “crack the whip” on broadcasters and other stakeholders.

Closer coordination between the FCC and broadcasters would be extremely helpful during the next four months, Seidel said.

Broadcasters have spent $1.2 billion in consumer education, said NAB President David Rehr. Broadcasters “stand ready” to assist the FCC in informing consumers of the new June 12 date, he said. NAB is taking “immediate action” to distribute new public service announcements to stations. The association will host a webcast for stations tomorrow to discuss the change.

The FCC can also take action to help, Rehr said. Among his suggestions were an improved FCC DTV hotline and coordination of consumer outreach between the FCC, NTIA, NAB and the DTV Transition Coalition, along with the continuing participation of the FCC as unofficial “DTV czar.”

The FCC should continue to cooperate with stations that do make the switch before June 12, Rehr added.

Outreach efforts should be tailored to individual states, said National Alliance of State Broadcasters Associations president Dennis Lyle. Lyle cautioned against a “one size fits all” approach, but praised local stations and state associations for spearheading efforts at consumer outreach.

Rehr dismissed a question from McDowell expressing concern over a lack of local accountability and emphasized that NAB was operating a successful national campaign.

McDowell immediately disagreed. “I’ve been yelled at in too many communities,” he said, noting while many consumers may be aware that “something is happening,” they may not know exactly what.

McDowell repeated his concern over lack of local accountability, citing a town hall where he was chastised regarding consumer confusion over the cable industry’s separate transition to digital signals. McDowell attributed this to poor outreach and education efforts.

“There needs to be ownership of each [designated market area],” McDowell said, emphasizing that different areas of the country have different sets of problems. “There are only 210 [markets]…it’s not that hard.”

The state associations have “the pulse” on what is going on, Lyle said. However, he told McDowell that broadcasters were loathe to cooperate for fear of inviting antitrust problems. But McDowell quickly quashed Lyle’s argument against industry cooperation, pointing out that despite the advice of antitrust counsel, “if the government mandates something…it’s not collusion.”

Consumers Union’s Joel Kelsey applauded the “modest” extension. Consumers Union is “heartened to see the FCC acting swiftly and decisively to begin taking advantage of the extended deadline,” he said.

With the new cutoff date, non-profits, business and the government can work together to better help consumers navigate the transition, he said.

The market for converter boxes has responded to the new cutoff date, said CEA Vice President Michael Petricone. The worst case scenario, he said, is if the available inventory of boxes is the lowest estimate of three million. It is more likely that the actual inventory of six million boxes will be enough to meet demand by the time new coupons are issued, he said.

Manufacturing of converter boxes resumes at full speed in anticipation of the new transition date, he said. Petricone said that while there could possibly be a temporary shortage of converter boxes, accelerated manufacturing processes will ensure that an adequate supply will be available by April when the new round of coupon funding is in place.

Broadband Breakfast Club

Don’t miss the Broadband Breakfast Club on Tuesday, February 10, 2009, with Donald C. Brittingham (Verizon Communications), Tom DeRiggi (Rapid DSL & Wireless), John Kneuer (formerly of NTIA), John Muleta (M2Z Networks) and Steve B. Sharkey (Motorola) on “The Role of Wireless Frequencies in Widespread Broadband Deployment” at the Old Ebbitt Grill, from 8 a.m. – 10 a.m.

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