More Mixed DTV News from GAO

Government Accountability Office Reports Good News, Bad News on Digital-TV Transition at House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee Hearing

According to new Government Accountability Office findings, there is good news and bad news about the progress of the digital-TV-transition consumer-awareness campaign.

The good news is that 84% of the people surveyed know that the transition is happening, House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass) said. The troubling news, he added -- and data suggested that consumers do not yet fully understand the ramifications -- is that almost one-half of those who need to do something to still watch TV on some or all of their sets had inadequate plans or no plans to address that problem.

That came at a hearing in the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee Tuesday on "The Status of the DTV Transition: 252 Days & Counting." The hearing was prompted by a GAO study finding significant progress toward the Feb. 17, 2009, cutoff of full-power analog-TV signals, but also significant challenges remaining.

During his testimony on the GAO findings, Mark Goldstein, GAO's director of physical-infrastructure issues, who helped to assemble that information, also said that while more than one-half of those polled knew about the government's converter-box-subsidy program, only one-third of those knew how to get the boxes.

Goldstein pointed out that one-third of those who didn't need the converter boxes or coupons were going to apply for them anyway, which could wind up being a drain on the funds for the program.

That funding was a hot topic at the hearing.

A number of legislators have pushed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to allow consumers to reapply for the $40 DTV converter-box coupons -- which expire in 90 days -- pointing to reports of the lack of boxes on store shelves.

The NTIA's Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, who testified at the hearing, said the agency’s lawyers might disagree over whether it has the authority to reissue the coupons, adding that the cost of doing so was also a problem. The 90-day expiration is in the law directing the NTIA to institute the program, so it may take a change to that law to allow for the change.

According to McGuire-Rivera, some 464,000 coupons expired without being used, or about 58% of the 800,000 that already reached their expiration dates.

The expiration date was mandated in part to avoid fraud, but McGuire-Rivera conceded that the NTIA already had to step in. It decertified about one-dozen retailers -- she called them "bad apples" -- that were putting consumers on waiting lists for boxes, getting them to "swipe" their cards so that they could collect the $40 subsidy and then keeping them waiting for boxes that never arrived.

She said the NTIA was asking stores that did not have the boxes not to "swipe" the cards until boxes were in stock.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) complained about the lack of boxes, saying that the stores in his district were all out of stock, with no clear idea of when they would arrive. He pointed out that RadioShack agreed to take the coupon and mail the box free-of-charge when it came in, and he wondered why all stores weren't doing that.