FCC Has Final DTV Transition Checkup Meeting

Says it is far readier than would have been for original date, but concerns remain
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The FCC held its final DTV checkup, hosting a status report briefing on the June 12 switchover to all-digital television with stakeholders at its monthly open meeting Wednesday.

The FCC says it is far readier than it would have been for the Feb. 17 date, but that concerns remain. "This is not a drill," said Acting Chairman Michael Copps, who said there would be no delaying this date, though he also said had Congress and the President not moved the date initially, the transition education effort would have been a "debacle that makes New Coke look like marketing genius."

Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, who is heading up the coupon box program at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said she believed there would be enough money to send out the DTV-to-analog converter box coupons, while Christopher McLean of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition, said there would be enough boxes on store shelves.

In fact, he said there would likely be an overall surplus.

But there will be disruptions, said FCC acting Chairman Michael Copps, saying that the FCC could not accomplish in four months what should have been done in the past four years.

Among his major concerns are reception issues because of the propagation techniques of DTV signals.

Erica Swanson, Deputy Director for Field Operations & Director, LCCREF DTV Assistance Campaign Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, cited a laundry list of unknowns related to what happens on June 12. Those include what will happen when stations shift power or channel position, the real-world impact of interference, how season weather changes will affect reception--such as the first big snow storm in Detroit--and whether some people will need help making a post-transition transition if they decide, for economic reasons, to drop their cable or satellite service for free, over-the-air TV.

On the issue of seasonal changes, Acting Chairman Copps said he had bought a converter box for a set in his home that had worked fine during the winter, but started to have interference issues after the leaves filled in and the winds picked up in spring. He asked if digital was more susceptible to those changes.

David Donovan, who heads the Association for Maximum Service Television, said that was the case, and that vieiwers might need to do more adjusting of their antennas because of it. He also used the interference issue to warn that allowing unlicensed wireless devices to share the DTV spectrum could be another one of those interference issues the FCC would have to keep track of.

The FCC has asked for more money from NTIA to make sure it can fully staff its DTV call centers, and urged more broadcasters to volunteer to keep an analog nightlight service on for up to 30 days past the June 12 date, particularly in the top DTV at-risk markets. Currently 100 stations have volunteered, and Donovan and Jane Mago from the National Association of Broadcasters told the commission they were continuing to push more stations to step up, though Donovan pointed out it would be at some economic cost to do so.

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein urged more stations to sign on, saying he would beg if need be--he did say "please" three times--saying it could be a "matter of life and death" particularly with the start of hurricane season.

The commissioners conceded there would still be problems and bugs to work out, but that in general the public interest benefit in sharper pictures and more channels, as well as reclaiming the spectrum for public safety and advanced wireless, trumped the dislocation of some viewers, hopefully only for the short-term as industry and government worked out the fixes.