By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 6, 2009
A day after Congress delayed the nation's transition to all-digital broadcasts, the Federal Communications Commission is grappling with how it will handle calls from confused consumers, broadcasters who want to move ahead early and the possibility that millions of Americans still could be left behind.
"While the law gives us a limited amount of additional time, it presents significant challenges given the longstanding problems that have already existed," FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein said during a meeting to discuss how to handle the delay.
Broadcasters were scheduled to stop airing analog broadcasts on Feb. 17 to free up airwaves for public safety agencies to build better radio systems and for wireless companies to provide new services for consumers. The shutoff means consumers who receive television signals over the air or with an antenna will need a converter box or a digital television set to get broadcasts.
Last month, Nielsen found that more than 6.5 million households were not ready for the transition.
The lack of funding for a program to distribute $40 coupons to offset the cost of converter boxes, as well as continued consumer confusion, prompted Congress to delay the transition until June 12.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is running the coupon program, hit its $1.34 billion funding limit last month after sending out more than 47 million coupons. There are requests for more than 3.7 million coupons on the waiting list.
The economic stimulus package working its way through Congress contains funding for the coupon program and other preparation efforts. With more money, the NTIA expects to be able to send out nearly 2 million coupons a week, said Tony Wilhelm, the agency's consumer education director.
"But by the time stimulus funds are available, the waiting list will be longer," he said.
FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell said the commission must beef up its call centers to handle the estimated 3.5 million calls during the switch.
"Millions and millions of people -- best-case scenario -- will still be left behind," he said.
Adelstein said there might not be enough converter boxes. Some markets, such as Puerto Rico where 50 percent of the population relies on over-the-air signals, are experiencing a shortage in stores.
Broadcasters can turn off analog signals before June 12, but stations planning do so on Feb. 17 must notify the FCC and viewers by Feb. 9. The FCC might not let a station switch early if the other stations in its market are planning to keep analog signals on the air until June.