FCC's McDowell: DTV Phone Prep 'Inadequate'

Republican commissioner Robert McDowell shares fears about FCC preparedness in letter to Chairman Kevin Martin

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Republican FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell has told FCC Chairman Kevin Marin that he is worried that the FCC is unprepared to handle the flood of calls--predicted to be in the millions--in the coming days about the DTV transition. 

In a letter to Martin delivered late Wednesday, McDowell described the FCC's call center efforts to date as "inadequate” and said the remedy will only happen if the commission is "better organized, more energetic" and works in a more "open and collaborative manner." That is according to a copy of the letter.

McDowell did not endorse moving the Feb. 17 DTV transition date, saying he believed the call center and outreach problems "can be remedied in time," though he labeled the task "daunting." The calls could get even more frequent if Congress decides to change the date, given that the FCC and industry have spent a year and a half and millions of dollars spreading the Feb. 17 date over TV, radio, billboards, busses, race cars and more.

McDowell, who expressed similar concerns at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last weekend, told Martin he was "memorializing" his criticisms in the letter. That memorial comes a day before Martin's last public meeting as chairman, but also as legislators work feverishly on a bill to either move DTV date or free up money so that the government can get millions off a waiting list for DTV-to-analog converter box subsidy coupons. 

By way of criticisms, McDowell said that the chairman had not brought him or other commissioners in on planning discussions about a broadcaster national call center effort. He also pointed to the FCC's announcement only last week of a dozen or so partners in DTV education and outreach. "I share questions recently expressed by other stakeholders as to the commission's plans for awarding any outstanding contracts and educating personnel to satisfactorily resolve unique and likely technical questions." 

McDowell said he was also concerned that the FCC's call center had not been staffed on recent weekends and what he saw as "this apparent lack of readiness."

McDowell said he was speaking from personal experience when he talked about problems with the FCC fielding telephone calls to its 1-800-call-FCC number. "I have found that busy signals are common [B&C tried four times over the course of an hour and got busy signals each time]. And, when the line actually rings, it frequently does so for more than two minutes,” he said.

When the call is answered, McDowell continued, it is by an electronic menu of options, and if the caller opts for a live operator, the call is "sometimes spontaneously disconnected."

McDowell has raised concerns about FCC DTV preparedness before, but has also argued the date is doable. McDowell told a broadcaster audience at CES essentially what parents tell their kids the night before a predicted snow day: Do your homework. According to an aide, he said they needed to be ready to make the DTV switch on schedule and that it would be up to Congress to make the call about changing the date.

Congress will have to make the call soon it if wants to start the coupons moving again. The waiting list is now 2.1 million coupons long and growing, according to the latest numbers from the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which administers the program.