Lawmakers See Challenges for TV Transition

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In the next five months, federal officials preparing Americans for the conversion to digital television have to clear up reception glitches, sort out problems with hooking up converter boxes and find a way to make sure coupons for those converters get to the viewers who need them.

Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) described the perils of the tasks yesterday during a hearing by the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet: "The government can do a lot of things, but you mess up people's televisions, and they're going to be very upset. It's going to be a real mess when it rolls out in the real world."

Broadcasters will shut off traditional analog signals Feb. 17, so TV watchers who rely on free, over-the-air programs will need a converter box to keep watching TV. Those who subscribe to cable or satellite service or who have a digital TV will not be affected.

Yesterday's hearing came a week after Wilmington, N.C., and surrounding counties became the first area to go digital, a test run for what the rest of the country will go through in February. The majority of viewers had no problems switching, but several hundred called the Federal Communications Commission's hotline because they were having trouble setting up converter boxes. Some had difficulty receiving a digital signal, either because their antennas were not pointing in the right direction or because the new signals did not reach them.

Wilmington's NBC affiliate was available to viewers up to about 100 miles away before the switch, but the station's new coverage area does not include some of these areas. FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said the agency's engineers are trying to figure out how to boost the signals so those in the wider area will still receive them.

Some members of the House panel, including its top Republican, Cliff Stearns (Fla.), declared Wilmington's early switch a success. The FCC received calls from fewer than 1 percent of the households affected by the switch, Martin said.

"I don't know that something that's 99 percent working is chaos," Stearns said.

Obtaining the government-subsidized $40 coupons to offset the cost of converters could be another challenge for consumers. In a report released yesterday, the Government Accountability Office said the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department that runs the coupon program, has no specific plans to address an increase in demand for the coupons as the transition date nears. "Therefore, consumers might incur significant wait time to receive their coupons and might lose television service if their wait time lasts beyond February 17," the report said.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the telecom subcommittee, grilled Meredith Attwell Baker, Commerce's acting assistant secretary in charge of the NTIA, about the agency's plan for getting coupons to customers. Last week, the NTIA proposed legislation to take $7 million from other, unused funds to cover administrative costs needed to redistribute unredeemed and expired coupons. In July, Markey and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent Baker a pointed letter about the shortfall in administrative funds, citing "mismanagement" of the NTIA's contract with IBM to run the program.

Baker said the additional funds will give the NTIA flexibility to meet rising consumer demand for coupons. The agency has also received $4.5 million -- money left over from a grant program for low-powered TV stations -- for consumer education.

She said the biggest complaint from consumers is that the coupons expire after 90 days, so if viewers wait too long to buy a converter box, they can no longer use the coupon and are not eligible to receive replacements. The NTIA said yesterday that residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities will soon be eligible to order coupons. Originally, they were excluded because each household could receive only two coupons.

On Monday, Markey and Dingell sent another letter to Baker, asking why the NTIA failed to indicate its need for more money sooner.

The GAO report also found that some communities that are most likely to be affected by the transition are less likely to redeem their coupons. Areas with predominantly senior populations, for example, allowed 43 percent of their coupons to expire as of last month, the GAO said. The overall expiration rate was 30 percent.

"We're concerned about the expiration rates we've seen so far," said Mark L. Goldstein, who authored the report. "We have a long way to go."

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