Lake: 3.5 Million Still Not Ready For DTV Switch

Worried about vulnerable populations, FCC prepared to handle 200,000 in-home box installations

"Yes, June 12 is Congress' final answer," said FCC DTV transition coordinator William Lake, in a status report to the commissioners 30 days out from the DTV transition date.

Lake warned that 3.5 million people had still not taken the actions necessary to avoid losing access to their TV signal, saying many of those were in the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly, low income, disabled minority and rural areas.

Conveying a sense of urgency, Lake told the commissioners that the key was doing everything possible so that those viewers did not lose their, "only link, in some cases, to news and the world at large."

That message came in a DTV status report during the commission's public meeting Wednesday.

FCC staffers and NTIA DTV coupon box program coordinator Bernie McGuire-Rivera outlined the steps the FCC and NTIA are taking to convey that urgency and help those populations get ready.

That includes the planned national soft analog plug-pulling test on May 21, which the FCC says NAB and the networks, station groups, cable and satellite operators will be participating in.

Lake said the FCC is prepared to handle over 200,000 in-home installations of converter boxes. The FCC call center will be ready to ramp up to 4,000 operators and can now handle calls in about 100 languages.

He said that the FCC has issued 46 contracts for assistance programs, 21 for in-home installations, 13 for in-home expert advice, and 12 for walk-in help centers. Firefighters will pitch in and help in areas not covered by the contracts. AmeriCorps volunteers and FCC boots on the ground continue their outreach efforts as well.

The FCC is also starting a media push, particularly to ethnic media, to get the word out. Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps gave a shout out to trade press for their coverage of the transition, but said he wished the national media were doing more on the story.

McGuire-Rivera said NTIA was also ramping up its media effort, including both earned and paid media. She said NTIA had started advertising on buses in 22 cities because lower-income populations used buses more often. She said that NTIA had been avoiding paid advertising because it was expensive, but was not doing more paid advertising with ethnic media.

She also said that NTIA had mobile assistance centers (vans) and booths in 24 cities, saying that in the DTV "search and rescue" phase, the vans were the ambulances.

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein joked that he kind of liked the idea of seeing the ads on buses because they "go slower than NASCARs and crash less often," a reference to the sponsorship of a DTV transition-themed race car under former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

Copps praised McGuire-Rivera for NTIA's having cleared out the converter box coupon waiting list, and said that new Commerce Secretary Gary Locke had "thrown himself" into the effort, saying that when Copps had called him the day before he had been told he was busy taping DTV spots.

Copps echoed his sentiment that the Feb. 17 transition date would have been a disaster and thanked the president and Congress for moving the date.

He said there would still be disruptions, citing some people who will procrastinate and others who will have reception problems no matter what they did to prepare because of the different propagation characteristics of digital or the move of transmitters. "Not all problems will be resolved between now and June 12," he said, "and candor compels us to so inform affected viewers."

For one thing, the FCC has mandated that stations who lose more than 2% of their analog viewership in the transition to digital inform their viewers of that fact.

"I assure you of one thing," Copps said. "The FCC's commitment does not end at the converter box or on June 12. We will be working just as hard in the days and weeks following June 12."