Senate Aging Committee Eyes DTV Switch with Concern

Association of Public Television Stations Study: Those 65 and Over Are Least Prepared

The Senate Special Committee on Aging will hold a hearing Wednesday on the effect of the digital transition on senior citizens.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin is not scheduled to testify, but commissioner Jonathan Adelstein is and, according to a hearing notice from the committee, he is planning to say that the FCC is not prepared, "highlighting the minor efforts the FCC has made in working with the Administration on Aging and its allied aging network to educate seniors about the DTV transition and its implications."

Among those scheduled to testify in addition to Adelstein are John Kneuer, head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which is overseeing the DTV-to-analog converter-box program, and Marcellus Alexander, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

A representative from the Government Accountability Office is also expected to talk about what it says is inter-agency confusion over the jurisdiction issue. The FCC is overseeing the actual technical switch from analog to digital broadcasting, while the NTIA is handling the converter-box program, including education about the boxes and coupons the government is subsidizing toward their purchase.

Chairman Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) is concerned that the dual FCC/NTIA jurisdiction is confusing and that not enough is being done to prepare seniors for the switch. Senior citizens, the poor and minority populations are among those expected to be most affected by the February 2009 switch to DTV, when over-the-air viewers will need a converter box or a DTV to get their TV picture.

The committee cited a study by the Association of Public Television Stations finding that "Americans aged 65 and older are consistently more likely to receive television signals via an over-the-air antenna than younger Americans and are therefore less prepared to transition from analog to digital-only television."

Martin has said that the commission would reach out to its target population. In a letter to Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) outlining the commission's DTV plans, he told the chairmen of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, respectively, that the commission had taped a segment on the transition for the Retirement Living TV Web site and would "continue looking for opportunities to reach as many senior citizens as possible," including approaching the AARP about a spot in the speakers' lineup at its fall convention and taking out exhibit space.

The FCC also asked Congress for $1.5 million for DTV education, which it will almost certainly get but hasn't yet.

Why Commissioner Adelstein rather than FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who is essentially Kneuer's opposite number at the FCC.

According to committee staffer Ashley Glacel, Chairman Martin was initially approached, then Commission Adelstein volunteered. Since he has a special interest in aging and served as a staffer on the aging committee for six years, said Glacel,"we called the chairman back and asked if he minded if we had Commissioner Adelstein instead and he said OK.

Glacel pointed out that Martin had already sent a letter to Chairman Kohl talking about educating seniors, so Adelstein's view could be contrasted with that.

The hearing, which is about being left in the dark after the DTV switch, will ironically be streamed without video. It had originally been scheduled for next week, but was moved up because there were plans for a Senate Commerce Commitee hearing on DTV issues for next week.

"We got bumped to the end of the list," for streaming video, she said, but the audio will be online.