Powerful Senator Sees Potential DTV-Transition 'Crisis'
Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye: FCC, NTIA must 'remain vigilant' so next administration does not inherit 'communications crisis.'
By John Eggerton -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/23/2008 12:35:00 PM
Senate Commerce Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) was the only senator on the panel as the committee began its digital-TV-oversight hearing Tuesday, appearing to serve as a metaphor for his assertion that the congressionally mandated plug-pull on full-power analog TV has not received sufficient attention or resources.
But Inouye pushed on, pointing out that the others were in meetings and conferences on the financial crisis, which threatens to pull the plug on the U.S. economy.
Members of Congress are beginning to receive calls now about the transition, he said. Inouye urged the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to keep focused on the transition and not have their attention "diverted" by contentious proceedings.
As the administration winds down, he added, both the NTIA and the FCC must "remain vigilant” so that the next administration does not inherit a "communications crisis. We have too many crises facing us at the moment," he said.
With the new administration inheriting the transition only 29 days in, he added, there is potential to cause "serious" disruption. A new president -- either Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- “should not have to deal with a failed transition," he warned.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin said the commission had learned some things from its early analog shutoff in Wilmington, N.C., which would help it going forward, including taking steps to fix issues with changing TV-station coverage areas and putting more emphasis on helping viewers to set up the boxes, scan for the new channels and understand what antenna issues they may have.
But he agreed with Inouye that Congress had not provided sufficient funding for transition education, saying that the FCC needed at least $20 million more. Inouye said he would try to make sure the FCC gets the extra money.
NTIA acting head Meredith Attwell Baker outlined progress in sending out DTV-to-analog converter-box coupons and its request for more money to administer the program given the expected "surge" in coupon requests as the deadline approaches.
A representative of the Government Accountability Office also reprised its findings from last week's House hearing that the government may not have done enough to prevent some folks from losing their TV picture Feb. 17, 2009, when the national DTV switch occurs, or to plan for the coupon surge.
House members asked the NTIA for a detailed plan for dealing with that surge, and Baker said she would be happy to supply that plan to the Senate, as well. Essentially, the Senate was getting the same DTV update from most of the same witnesses that appeared before the House Commerce Committee at its DTV-oversight hearing.
One exception was Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who was not at the House hearing. He called the Wilmington test a success, praised the FCC staff's efforts in Wilmington, hailed retailers for having plenty of boxes on hand and helpful salespeople and thanked broadcasters for their education effort.
But he also said other communities needed to be ready to respond to seniors who had trouble hooking up their converter boxes or scanning channels, and to help those who he said could not afford the boxes even with the DTV coupons. That would appear to be a very small population, however, since they would have to be able to afford a TV, but not the $20 or less it costs for a box with a $40 subsidy.
While he called the overall effort "outstanding," Saffo said, "We still had residents who went dark."
Inouye was eventually joined by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and a couple of others. Dorgan asked if anyone had hooked up a converter box. Baker said she had done many of them, and it was pretty simple.
Saffo said the antennas sometimes had to be adjusted after the box was connected, and more of that might have to be done in more mountainous areas.
Martin said he shared Dorgan's nervousness about what was going to happen in February. Dorgan registered his concern about the digital cliff effect. Martin said he would supply Dorgan with information about what areas would be affected by the digital cliff -- viewers either get a digital signal or they don't, and some who had been receiving weak analog signals won't get digital signals from those stations.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) -- who pointed out that her state's analog-only viewership is about 20%, compared with Wilmington's 7% -- said she was concerned about the digital cliff, as well, asking Martin if he had ever been on a roof in Minnesota trying to upgrade an antenna. Martin said no. She asked how Martin would fix the problem. Martin said viewers should make the switch early to find out whether they need a new antenna.
As for the shrinking of digital coverage areas, Martin called that a more significant problem. He estimated that about 15% of markets will have at least one broadcaster with a smaller contour. The FCC is looking into filling those coverage gaps with repeater antennas. Broadcasters would have to pay extra for those repeaters, Martin conceded.
Sen. Inoye: It's too late to avoid a "crisis" so introduce legislation to delay the analog shut-off until Aug. 31, 2011, the Canadian deadline. It just makes sense. Do it now, before the new administration and the Congress have to bear the wrath of millions of disenfranchised antenna-dependent viewers who just won't be ready in time.
Also, why is no one addressing the "driving rain" factor? In inclement weather, digital signals have a tough time punching through. This is especially true in wooded areas when the leaves are shaking. Where are the propagation studies? And that coverage shrinkage, to affect up to 15 percent of stations, is unacceptable from a business standpoint. Repeaters could solve the problem -- but no one's talking about this.
Adam Smith - 9/24/2008 6:23:00 PM EDT
The key is to not abandon all the programs set up now after the transition. I think there are a lot of procrastinators in America who will wait until there is a problem to find out about the converter box.
But to call something like this a crisis is absurd. We don't need TV to survive! There are enough people who know about this now that they will help anyone out who has gone "dark". I predict most people who are in this situation will either get a new tv, a converter box, or get cable or satellite within a week or two after the transition. Again, not a crisis. The people who go dark will manage to survive. But keep funding those education programs to last a half year after the transition date. Any more time after that would be a waste of money.
Matt Headley - 9/24/2008 11:33:00 AM EDT
As a person who will go from 16+ analog channels in Chicago, (only 5 miles NW of Sears Tower) to only THREE digital channels, this change will be hard on some people. I have to decide to shell out $21/month for basic cable OTA package or just go without TV.
It seems irksome that I have to pay for something I now get for free while BILLIIONS of dollars go to bail out people with deadbeat mortgages and poorly run corporations
Eric Post - 9/24/2008 8:25:00 AM EDT
No related content found.
No Top Articles
Digital Rapids provides market-leading software and hardware solutions, technology and expertise for transforming live and on-demand video to reach wider audiences on the latest viewing platforms more efficiently, more effectively and more profitably. Empowering applications from..more