News Articles

Stressed Out

10/10/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

FCC chairman Kevin Martin is worried that the DTV coupon program could run out of money, particularly if there is a run on coupons toward the DTV transition date on Feb. 17, 2009. He said as much in a letter to Capitol Hill warning that the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) may have miscalculated.

We're not sure whether or not he is right. NTIA, which has said it expects a spike in coupon requests, still assures Congress that it expects to have $300 million left over at the end of the program to return to the treasury. At the rate AIG uses those dollars up, that would give a couple more hours worth of solvency.

NTIA estimated it would receive 13,000 or so DTV coupon requests from Wilmington, N.C, in advance of its Sept. 8 early analog shut-off—the Nielsen estimate of analog-only homes. Instead, it got more than 19,000. That may be because it is a beach community with seasonal housing not occupied by Nielsen's count.

If so, that will need to be factored in to estimates in coastal areas going forward, as will the impact of the addition of nursing homes and post office boxes to the rolls of those eligible for the converter-box coupons.

But even if NTIA is right, we agree with Martin that it may be time to start worrying.

For one thing, our guess is that just as the government wants viewers to pay attention to its DTV education message, digital television is not top of mind just now.

A Pew Research Center study last week showed what anyone could have guessed even without a phone survey of 1,000 people 18-plus, margin of error 3.5%—the economic meltdown is the most important news story to the vast majority of people.

It is easier to get people's attention about channel scanning and antenna adjustments on their rooftop antennas when they aren't concentrating on trying to keep that roof over their heads.

And secondly, the Wilmington test revealed problems beyond potential coupon box shortages that, extrapolated over the entire country, could spell enough dislocation to cause problems for Washington.

Those consumer problems include hooking up and using the converters, and encountering signal losses due to the difference in coverage areas between analog and digital stations, leaving gaps that the FCC says it is trying to figure out how to fill. But with many stations not yet at full power, the FCC may not know exactly where some of those gaps are until the plug is pulled on analog and the angry calls start coming in.

And according to at least one consulting firm that has long warned of antenna problems within existing coverage areas, the FCC is underestimating the need for directional outdoor antennas.

The real importance of getting a digital signal is rather insignificant compared to the lingering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the stock market crash. But if the digital switchover is botched it could create an aura of failure at the top, ranging from the very significant to something less so—whether your TV will work. We'd advise Congress to allocate those extra funds, and urge the FCC and the NTIA to redouble their efforts to make the digital conversion a success. America needs some good news.

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