Inouye: Congress Will 'Do Something' to Address DTV Concerns

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The term "disaster" was used twice and "train wreck" only once in a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Thursday that discussed how well consumers are being prepared for the analog-to-digital TV transition. The transition is now a little over 18 months away.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) said he had gotten the message from concerned seniors and minority groups. "I assure you Congress has heard your message, and we will do something about it."  He did not elaborate.

During the hearing, the senator heard from an FCC staffer and John Kneuer, head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which is charged with administering the $1.5 billion program to distribute digital-to-analog converter boxes to keep analog-only sets running after the February 17, 2009 date for the digital switch.

NTIA isn't exactly doing the heavy lifting. It is subcontracting the program to a private company, with Kneuer saying NTIA would pick that company by mid-August.

There were concerns about the DTV transition from both sides of the aisle. Democrats were generally worried that the industry's consumer education campaign, particularly broadcast PSA's, had not yet begun. They pointed to studies showing only 10% of consumers knew of Feb. 17, 2009 the DTV transition date and that date was "tommorrow in government time." 

They also cited the $400 million Britain was spending on consumer education, while the U.S. has set aside $7 million, $5 million for NTIA, which Kneuer said was going mostly to education on the converter box program, and $2 million for the FCC. Initially, the FCC didn' t have any money until Congress gave it some additional money in its 2008 appropriation.

Kneuer pointed out that while the money was a constraint, the plan was to leverage that through various government and private partnerships, including the major industry campaing. He pointed out that it was in the TV industry interest to educate its viewers.

He also said he thought the $1.5 billion the government had allocated to fund the converter-box coupon program would be enough to cover everyone who needed the boxes, pointing out that only about 15% of households relied exclusively on analog-only TV's, and that even that was a three-year old figure. He said he hoped the FCC could come up with a more current figure, which he expected would show that percentage had dropped even more.

Several Republican, led by ranking member Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), said one of  his concerns was that there would not be enough money to fund the converter box program and education campaign if the FCC decides to put open access conditions on a large swath of the 700mHz analog TV spectrum being auctioned, which could discourage some bidders and lower the auction revenues.

 That's because the money from the auction is being used to pay for those DTV-related programs, including a billion dollars for emergency communications, which is also being administered by NTIA. NTIA was able to borrow against those future auction revenues, with Kneuer's name on the promissory note. Since he had spent much of the money, said Kneuer, he would prefer the spectrum were auctioned without any regulatory encumberances that might reduce the auction take.

 Stevens and Senator Ted Sunun (R-N.H.) agreed, with all three indicating that maximum flexibility--i.e. no open access condition and as few regulatory encumberances as possible--would result in maximum revenues. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, in defending his open access proposal, told a House Telecommunicatoins & Internet Subcommittee hearing audience earlier this week that he recognized that the open access conditions, as well as breaking some of the spectrum up into smaller blocks accessbile to smaller and minority-contolled business, would likely reduce the take from the auction. But he said that the FCC had to look beyond that balance sheet alone to the consumer interest in diverse ownership and competitoin and having a network open to a variety of handsets and software applications.