Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) is introducing a bill to establish a new public-private digital-TV-education partnership among the Federal Communications Commission, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, the Administration on Aging and "industry stakeholders.”
Currently, the FCC is overseeing the technical aspects of the transition, while the NTIA is administering the digital-to-analog converter-box program. But Kohl, who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging, is concerned that the effort is not sufficiently coordinated and that some seniors could wake up in February 2009 without access to critical weather and emergency information. At a hearing on the impact of the DTV transition on seniors, Kohl said there was "little coordination" between the different parts of the transition.
As of now, he pointed out, only $5 million has been set aside to educate 300 million citizens, compared with $400 million in Britain to educate 60 million citizens about their DTV transition.
"Little is being done to address the unique needs of seniors," said Kohl, adding that a new study from U.S. Public Interest Research Group shows that "due to the impending transition, upselling and misleading sales tactics already plague electronics retailers in the D.C. metro area.”
FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who worked as a staffer on the committee, said he thought more coordination was needed, as well.
“Unfortunately, the commission’s DTV-outreach and education efforts to date have been lackluster at best,” Adelstein said. “Specifically, there is a lack of an established command and control structure that is responsible to coordinate the national DTV-transition effort and to vet, prioritize and implement meritorious ideas from the public and private sectors into a comprehensive, coherent and coordinated plan.”
"This public-private partnership would launch a nationwide consumer-education campaign in coordination with a diverse advisory board, crafted to ensure that older individuals who depend on analog TV are not left without service after Feb. 17, 2009," said Kohl's office in announcing the bill.
The bill would also develop "a road map for consumer education, with specific and achievable benchmarks, and report to Congress on progress."
Those would include "mandatory public-service announcements; easily identifiable labels on coupon-eligible converter boxes to mitigate the potential for 'upselling' and minimize returns; and the establishment of a toll-free phone number to provide individuals with help with determining if their televisions will go dark and installation assistance."
The FCC has already proposed setting various benchmarks, including reporting and PSA requirements, but it has yet to decide whether they will be necessary.
Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure issues, for the Government Accountability Office, said there was a definite lack of coordination between the FCC and NTIA, adding, "It is pretty clear to us that there is no one in charge."
Saying that he thought the coordination ought probably to fall to the FCC, he added that there "seems to be some confusion between chariman Kevin Martin and some other commissioners regarding what their responsibilities are."
Without that coordination, said Goldstein, "the challenges are likely to rise and the chances for success diminish."
During the hearing, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she went to a store and asked about the converter box and the salespeople didn't know what she was talking about.
"If the poeple selling the boxes don't know they are coming and we don't know when they are going to get here, there is a chicken-and-egg thing going on," she added.
John Kneuer, head of the NTIA, said he wants to make sure vendors educated retailers, but he pointed out that the NTIA is required to be ready to hand out coupons, but it does not have the authority to dictate the supply chain, which meant the authority to make sure that the boxes were on the shelves.
"I'm not happy that the same NTIA subcontractor who is administering the converter-box program -- IBM -- is the same one that handled a Medicare education program that didn't go so well, McCaskill said.
Kneuer said he thought a public-private partnership already existed in the form of the DTV Transition Coalition. He pointed out that the NTIA, the FCC and the cable, broadcast and consumer-electronics industries, as well as 120 public-interest groups, had already gotten together to coordinate their message and find ways to reach hard-to-reach populations. For example, he said, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez went to the National Association of Broadcasters to tape messages in Spanish and English.
Adelstein responded that he still thought there was a need to coordinate the message.
Marcellus Alexander, executive VP at the NAB, told the committee that broadcasters have a comprehensive plan to reach hard-to-reach populations, including PSAs, crawls, news stories and "a host of other elements."
He also said the first PSAs, which have already been distributed to stations, would start rolling out next week, although he added that some broadcasters including Capitol Broadcasting, Dispatch Broadcast Group and Post-Newsweek Stations had already begun running their own PSAs.