Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Static! More Stumbles in DTV Transition May Leave Many New Yorkers Without Service

If digital clocks could tick, they would be ticking loudly now.
In a little over a month, history will be made. For on that day, February 18th to be exact, we will know who has made it across the digital divide and can continue to watch television as they did the day before. Unfortunately, many will be left behind in the virtual dust, unable to watch television as every American has a God-given right to do.

There are several choices that households can make in order to continue to receive television signals on February 18th. If they already subscribe to a cable television or satellite service, no changes are necessary. If they have a digital television set (one that has been purchased new in the past year or two, even if it is not an "HDTV"), they should be able to continue to receive television programming, even without cable or satellite. If a family has an older television not connected to a pay service like cable or satellite, unless they want to subscribe to one of these services or purchase a new television, they will need to obtain a converter box to continue to receive over-the-air television signals.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration ("NTIA"), the federal agency tasked with overseeing the transition and the coupon program to reduce the cost of the converter boxes, permits households to request up to two coupons -- each worth $40 -- toward the purchase of certified converter boxes. Only one coupon can be used to purchase each coupon-eligible converter box. Consumers will receive a list of eligible converter boxes and participating retailers with their coupons. Converter boxes generally cost between $40 and $80 and coupons expire 90 days from the date they are mailed.

Hurdle #1 - Missing the Deadline
While there is no indication that the deadline will be extended, the federal government has awoken to realize that not everyone will be ready for the digital television ("DTV") transition and has stepped up its efforts to provide a safety net. As reported in the PULP Newsletter on December 19th, the "Analog Flash and Emergency Readiness Act" was approved by Congress on December 10th. The bill, which requires the FCC to implement a program to permit the continued transmitting of public safety information and digital television transition information to analog television sets for 30 days after the transition, was signed into law on December 23rd as Public Law No. 110-459 and the FCC has already begun implementing it. What this will do is provide an extra month of reminders for people who did not make the switch (as well as offer emergency safety information), but it will not get them Oprah, CSI, or any March Madness basketball games. Getting the word out about the DTV transition should be priority one.

Hurdle #2 - Waiting List for Converter Coupons
The problems with the transition are much worse than that. NTIA issued a dire announcement on January 5th that its converter box coupon program has run out of money . Starting January 4th, consumers requesting coupons from its TV Converter Box Coupon Program have been placed on a waiting list. Coupons will be mailed on a first-come, first-served basis, as funds from expired coupons become available. Because of the high demand for coupons, the program apparently reached its $1.34 billion ceiling, which consists of ordered and redeemed coupons. Now, when consumers contact the Coupon Program to request coupons, they will receive a message they have been placed on the waiting list. Consumers will receive a reference number to use to check the status of their order at the Coupon Program's Web site.

According to NTIA, more than 24 million households have requested more than 46 million coupons and more than 18 million coupons have been redeemed. Consumers holding coupons are advised to redeem them before the coupon expires within 90 days from the date it is mailed. To date, 52.5 percent of coupons requested have been redeemed and more than 13 million coupons have expired.

Hurdle #3 - The Process and the Need for an Antenna
So, what happens if you are one of the lucky ones and receive a converter box coupon - what is the process like? Once the converter box is purchased and properly installed, are your problems over? Have you successfully crossed the digital divide? Not so fast.

Digital is a completely different animal from analog, especially when it comes to television signals. If you are familiar with adjusting your antenna (either a roof-top model or rabbit ears attached directly to the television set) in order to tune in a station and eliminate the static, you may be in for a rude awakening. The process of tuning in a digital station is completely different - the signal is either received or not received.

Some channels that were previously received with a little "snow" may not be viewable at all, come February 17th. A more powerful roof top antenna may now be required and there is no coupon program to help cover the cost of the antenna or the installation. Up until now, no one has talked about this aspect of the DTV transition.

A recently story in the New York Times and follow-up letters addressed the issue of the "cliff effect," where the viewer feels as if a favorite television station has fallen off a cliff because the signal can no longer be received.

The article author also correctly notes that it will be the most vulnerable Americans, such as the poor, the elderly, and the non-English speaking, who will be most affected. Those are the members of our population who are the least likely to be able to afford a new digital TV antenna or a converter box without a coupon.

The digital clock is indeed ticking, but can these serious hurdles be resolved in time to help those left on the wrong bank of the digital divide?

Lou Manuta

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