Many TV Viewers Unprepared For Switch

Rep. John Shimkus is concerned about the transition's effect on owners of analog TVs.
Rep. John Shimkus is concerned about the transition's effect on owners of analog TVs. (Seth Perlman - AP)
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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Nearly half of the households that could lose television service after the transition to digital broadcasting are still unprepared for the switch, according to a report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office.

The report found that many consumers are still confused about how to get ready for the transition, underscoring lawmakers' concerns that millions of TV viewers could be faced with a blank screen.

Broadcasters will stop airing traditional analog signals on Feb. 17 as they switch entirely to digital broadcasting, so TVs that rely on old-fashioned analog signals to get service will no longer work. Nationwide, about 70 million TVs rely on antennas to receive over-the-air signals. To keep watching television after the transition, consumers using analog TVs will need to buy converter boxes, buy a digital TV or subscribe to cable or satellite service.

"No matter what we do and no matter how many tax dollars we spend, we're not going to be at a point where there aren't any effects," for consumers, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said at a hearing yesterday held by the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

The GAO report found that about 84 percent of consumers were aware of the transition but that many did not know what they needed to do to continue getting service. More than half the 1,010 people surveyed said they knew about the government program to get coupons to help pay for converter boxes that allow analog TVs to receive digital broadcasts, but two-thirds of the people who want a coupon didn't know how to get one.

Even consumers who will not be affected are confused, the report found. About 30 percent of the respondents indicated they had plans to ready themselves for the transition, even though they do not have to do anything to maintain service.

Many members of the panel expressed concern that converter box coupons may expire before consumers can find a box they can afford or that has the features they want. The $40 coupons are available through a $1.5 billion program run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department. But the coupons expire after 90 days, and consumers are currently not eligible to reapply.

For example, the GAO report found that only a few converter boxes currently available will allow TVs to continue receiving analog signals from low-powered stations, which typically air local broadcasts and are not required to make the transition to digital.

About 800,000 coupons -- the first batch to be sent to TV viewers -- recently expired. Fewer than half were redeemed, according to the NTIA. The agency said it would decide whether to reissue the coupons after more detailed redemption rates were available next month.

"It's important for consumers to buy the boxes now rather than wait until the rush next January and February," said Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, associate administrator of the Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications in the NTIA. She added that more funds may be needed to reissue coupons that have already expired.

Lawmakers questioned Kevin J. Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, about the quality of reception consumers would receive after the transition. Unlike analog signals, digital signals are not as resilient to interference from trees and buildings, which sometimes causes the picture to disappear entirely.

FCC engineers said about 15 percent of viewers live along the edge of a broadcaster's coverage area, and about 5 percent of those, or 1 percent of current analog households, may have reception issues, Martin said. Martin also said digital reception would improve as broadcasters reposition their antennas to complete the transition.

The FCC last month announced that five Wilmington, N.C., stations would make the transition early in September to identify any problems before other markets make the official switch. FCC and NTIA officials plan to be in Wilmington to assist.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he was worried that all the personal attention given to that market would make it an unrealistic test case.

"Will the FCC have the resources to educate every community to the same extent as was done in the Wilmington test market?" he said. "I must confess I have great doubts about that."

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