The Digital TV Switch

Joel Kelsey
Policy Analyst, Consumers Union
Friday, January 9, 2009 12:00 PM

President-elect Barack Obama's transition team Thursday asked key members of Congress to consider delaying the nation's switch to digital television scheduled for Feb. 17, saying there is "insufficient support" for the problems consumers will experience during the shut-off of analog signals. Also on Thursday Consumers Union urged Congress to delay the transition "until a plan is in place to minimize the number of consumers who will lose TV signals" and questioned the ability of the Federal Communications Commission's call centers to handle a flood of calls from confused television-watchers on Feb. 17.

Joel Kelsey, policy analyst at Consumers Union, was online Friday, Jan. 9, at Noon ET to discuss and explain the reasons for delaying the government-mandated transition to digital television.

A transcript follows.


Joel Kelsey: Hello, my name is Joel Kelsey. I am a policy analyst with Consumers Union, the non profit publisher of Consumer Reports. I'm here to answer questions about the DTV Transition and the possibility of delaying. I look forward to answering your questions.


Arlington, Va.: How can there be a shortfall in funds to guarantee converter boxes for the public when the FCC had so much time to consider the price of airwaves in the auction?

Joel Kelsey: Our current dilemma has many fathers. We believe it is irresponsible for government to make $19 billion while clearing the analog spectrum, but ask rural, low-income consumers to pay $40-$80 to make up for the miscalculation of the federal government. All involved must now stop pointing fingers, and start working toward the solutions that will get the necessary equipment into the hands of the consumers that need it.


Washington, D.C.: I've been a subscriber to CR for many years. My question is why should the government give consumers a break when the transition to DTV has been advertised for at least a year or more? There will always be procrastinators. This transition didn't just come up.

Thank you.

Joel Kelsey: Thanks for your question; glad to see a subscriber! This isn't government giving consumers a break. This is government stepping up to help consumers through a federally mandated transition, to stay connected to emergency broadcasts and essential news and information.

There are one million people on a waiting list, who are trying to prepare ahead of time, that won't get the assistance they need by February 17th.


Rockville, Md.: By the by, I have a complaint for CU and can not find any way to email it in or even to write a paper letter. I searched several issues and never found an address. But I get these letters saying "Emergency renew your subscription" and I am paid up for the next five years. I hate them. Can you pass that on?

Joel Kelsey: Happy to!


Jackson, N.J.: Thank you to Consumer Union for voicing an important issue, the need to delay the conversion. Do you know how other countries are handling this dilemma?

Joel Kelsey: Glad you asked. Many other countries have already completed, or are in the process of completing their own transitions. For example, the UK has allocated over $400 million to educate and prepare its citizens for their transition. They have 1/5 the population of the US, who has allocated well under $50 million for public education.

We recommend Congress, the new Administration and the relevant federal agencies to look at these examples and chart a better path forward.


Expired: I requested and was sent the government's coupon/discount for a converter box. When I got around to getting one, I saw that it had expired. I requested a new one, but received no response from the FCC. What are the odds that a new coupon will come to me?

Joel Kelsey: The Commerce Department's coupon program allows each household to request up to TWO coupons. However, once both coupons have expired, you can not reapply for new ones. This is one of the many flaws that Consumers Union is advocating the government fix.


Dayton, Ohio: Shouldn't Congress be stepping up to the plate and letting the coupon managers send out the coupons to people on their waiting list? The dollar limit for those coupons, considering what's being done, seems stupid. (also a CR subscriber)

Joel Kelsey: Glad to hear from another subscriber!

The Commerce Department has hit the $1.34 billion ceiling in the coupon program, mandated by law. A short term solution would be lifting this cap to allow the Commerce Department to immediately send coupons out to those on the waiting list.

However, that's only the first step. More funding must be made available so that every consumer that requests a coupon can receive one in a reasonable time frame.


Silver Spring, Md.: There's no conceivable amount of support that would be enough. Postponing the change will do absolutely nothing. The same problem would happen, just a few months later.

Precisely what extra action does anyone think would help those who haven't noticed the current barrage of ads, information, etc?

Joel Kelsey: You're absolutely right that a huge amount of public and private resources have already gotten the word out about the transition. However, although consumers are aware, many do not understand how to navigate the transition. 29% of consumers believe all households must buy a new digital television to deal with the transition, 25% believe everyone must sign up for cable or satellite service. All untrue, all would cost consumers money they do not need to spend. We should do better to allay the costly misconceptions, before moving forward.


Germantown, Md.: What financial consequences does the government face if this switch is not made on February 17, 2009? Would the government (and essentially taxpayers) be held liable if the agencies that purchased spectrum through the auction didn't receive those frequencies on time?

Do the consumer advocates asking for this delay realize how much this will cost, a cost that will eventually find its way into every American's wallet? Are you advocating that this switch cost us even more money than it already is costing us now?

If you are truly a consumer advocate, how can you take this stance?

Joel Kelsey: There is already a 30 day period past February 17th, when the broadcasters will continue to use the analog spectrum to broadcast essential information about transition.

Right now, millions of Americans are living in households that have not taken action to prepare for this government mandated switch. Their only recourse is to spend their own money, because the coupon program has promised out all its available funding. This is not the economic time to ask consumers to reach into their own pockets to pay for the miscalculation of government.


Louisville, Ky.: We don't have cable and are currently using rabbit ears. Our TV has a digital converter, but a few days ago I heard that we may need a new antenna -- is this true?

I have a master's degree and my husband's a lawyer and we're still confused!

Joel Kelsey: The reception issue is a whole new layer of this complicated onion. Many consumers that have made the transition, have written us noticing they no longer receive the same channels they used to. This could be due to several factors. First, your antenna may need upgrading. Second, some broadcasters will be reducing their geographic footprint as they move to digital and some consumers will find themselves in "digital dead zones". Lastly, some broadcasters haven't begun broadcasting in digital at full power yet.

Our advice is to ask your neighbors what channels they are receiving to find out if the problem lies with your antenna or with the signal itself. The next step is to call your local broadcast station to troubleshoot the problem.


Fairfax, Va.: Why do you think Sen. Obama is asking for the delay? Is he listening to the people on the ground? Is politics playing any role in it?

Joel Kelsey: We think President-Elect Obama is asking for delay because he has a good sense of the situation on the ground. There are more over-the-air households than we realized, the coupon program ran out of money despite assurances that it would not, and there are millions of at-risk citizens (especially elderly) who may have heard an ad about the switch, but are not technically inclined and still don't know what exactly to do. For all those reasons, the President-Elect has wisely suggested we take the necessary time to put a plan in place that will reach the most vulnerable citizens.


Why wait?: Why didn't the FCC just offer a rebate instead of a coupon? How many unredeemed coupons are out there tying up funds that could be used elsewhere? Why wouldn't Walmart or somebody just do an "instant rebate" and collect from the feds after the purchase has been made?

Joel Kelsey: Good question. We think your idea of an instant rebate is an excellent one, especially because it wouldn't create the situation we have now with unredeemed coupons tying up funds. The converter box coupon program was written into law without much latitude to create a different kind of program. We are now advocating Congress revisit the many flaws in the coupon program, to make sure every consumer acting before the transition gets the coupons they need.


Reston, Va.: Why delay when the problem isn't that people aren't ready -- the problem is that the converter boxes don't work! We're moving from a system that worked to a system that doesn't work, unless you have cable or dish.

Joel Kelsey: While we've heard from a few consumers that their boxes don't work, the testing work at the Consumer Reports labs have shown nearly all of the models do a decent job of picking up digital TV signals and converting them to analog. That said, many consumers are finding that they aren't able to pick up the channels they have received with analog, particularly in places with mountains or hills or even tall buildings. Some consumers are also picking up channels they never received before. Some are finding they have to buy a new antenna just to get the same channels and even that doesn't solve the problem in some cases. The delay will allow consumers a bit more time get help or work on those type of problems themselves.


Houston, Tex.: I'd like to suggest to Silver Spring that there are people with difficulty affording the converter box, even with the coupon. They may have delayed the expenditure, and now face a delay or no coupon.

I am amazed that many people do not conceive of the financial difficulties many in the U.S. face.

Joel Kelsey: Many of us take television for granted as the majority of us pay for a video subscription service. Our most recent survey found 19 million consumers are living in households that rely exclusively on over-the-air broadcasts for news and weather, as well as emergency broadcasts for information in a crisis. Asking consumers that may not have much money, and are facing economic hardships, to dip into their pockets doesn't right to us.


Annandale, Va.: We got our converter box and set it up months ago. After a couple of frustrating weeks, we disconnected it. Although there were a couple of stations that we could get, most were receiving no signal or went in and out. We're in the middle of the D.C. metropolitan area, so it's not as if we're in a rural area. The local digital signals are not strong enough!

People are being told that having a converter box will fix their problems, and it's just not true!

Joel Kelsey: You raise a good point. We're worried once the deadline passes, there will be too many consumers with similar problems and not enough places to turn to for help. The government needs to invest more local resources to give consumers the guidance they need to navigate this transition.


Rockville, Maryland: My brother just helped his mother in law with the transition and she has digital over the air by a roof antenna. But her location has plenty of stations she can pick up. Not a problem.

I have an antenna in Rockville and on the fourth floor pick up a number of stations that feed into my computer for viewing or go to my Samsung Windows Extender box to my television. So that works, too. You are right - there are many choices. But many work very well.

Joel Kelsey: Millions of consumers have already redeemed their coupons and successfully made the transition.

But millions remain in need of financial and technical assistance, and the government that mandated this switch should get the job done right.


Cambridge, Mass.: My upstairs neighbor stole my coupon! And used it! Is there anything I can do to get a new coupon?

Joel Kelsey: If you've already received two coupons, unfortunately the system won't let you reapply.

If you've only requested one coupon, you now have to join the millions on a waiting list.

That's the problem.


Annapolis, Md.: Why is over-the-air television considered essential? Aren't most emergency communications transmitted over the radio? Will life as we know it cease to exist if people can't watch TV or have to spend $40 of their own money to update their obsolete TV?

Joel Kelsey: For over 70 years the government has invested tax payer dollars into free over-the-air television that uses publicly owned spectrum to transmit broadcasts.

Television is a lifeline for many Americans. We believe its irresponsible to tax consumers to keep something they once got for free.


Arlington, Va.: What was not advertised was the amount of time it took the coupon to get mailed, once it was requested. It was several weeks between my request and my receipt of the coupon which surprised me.

Joel Kelsey: This is another flaw of the coupon program that should be addressed by Congress. Once the coupon program is back up and running, and we hope Congress steps in to do that, government needs to get coupons to consumers in less than the current four to six weeks.


Joel Kelsey: Thanks everyone for your questions. There is plenty of further information, including testing and reviews of converter boxes, available online at the following website: TV Transition

For more information you can also visit:

TV Converter Box Coupoon Program


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