Congress may see the glass half-empty on DTV transition

Suppose only a small percentage of the American population finds themselves without television service come next February, and either don't know why or aren't sure what to do. Are federal, state, and local governments ready for them?

After a pair of congressional hearings in recent days where witnesses gave generally favorable reports on the status of the nation's transition to digital television -- still slated for next February 17 -- leaders there are still putting out the word that a crisis of misinformation may not be avoided in time.

During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing yesterday, Bill Saffo, the mayor of Wilmington, North Carolina -- the city that has already thrown the switch in the nation's first test of DTV preparedness -- reported having received some 300 phone calls in the first week after the switch was thrown. Roughly 80% of those calls were from residents needing technical assistance with getting their converter boxes to work, while the remainder sought installation assistance that the city had offered through its local fire department. Fire personnel were only too glad to help, Saffo said, because it gave them another opportunity to check to see whether households had proper fire safety equipment such as smoke detectors and extinguishers.

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"It was reported to me that predominately the vast majority of the calls first received right after the switch were seniors who either did not want to even try to install the converter box or they attempted to install the box but were not finding success," Saffo testified. "It also appears that many of these callers were not scanning the channels after they installed their box or, that they would need to perform an additional scan after the Big Switch at noon in order to receive all the channels. Many sons, daughters, and neighbors have been calling to request assistance for an elderly community member."

But none of those calls appeared to be from individuals who were unaware that the DTV switch would be taking place. That coincides with data given to BetaNews earlier this month from TV station managers in the Wilmington area, who reported receiving an average of about 40 calls per day per station on technical issues.

The Wilmington viewing area is estimated to serve about 14,000 residents. The US Commerce Dept.'s National Telecommunications and Information Administration estimates that there are as many as 14 million households that rely on over-the-air transmission. Is the federal government ready to handle a potential thousand-fold response level -- forty thousand calls per day?

That's the question Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D - Hawaii) found himself asking yesterday.

"As the recent test in Wilmington, North Carolina, demonstrated, even with a Herculean investment of time and resources that will be impossible to replicate throughout the rest of the country, consumers made thousands of phone calls seeking help with various aspects of the transition," stated Sen. Inouye. "On a national level, this may translate to millions of calls. Unless more is done, February 17, and 18, and 19, will be very long days indeed."

More what, exactly? NTIA chief Meredith Atwell Baker gave both houses of Congress data that suggests that more education may still be necessary. Of those 14 million over-the-air (OTA) consumers, NTIA believes some 60% are eligible for the government coupons being distributed since last February, for about 8.4 million possible recipients. Of that number, it estimates some 79% have actually applied for those coupons -- some 6.6 million.

Baker then pointed out that fewer than half of those who have received coupons have actually redeemed them yet -- about 49.3%. That's some 3.36 million who have not acted -- folks who may most likely be described in terms that Mayor Raffo used.

"The primary lesson NTIA gained from Wilmington is that we must emphasize to an even greater extent the need for consumers that rely on OTA broadcasts for viewing on analog television sets to apply for a coupon and purchase a converter box well in advance of the transition date," reads Assistant Secretary Baker's prepared testimony. "It is essential that consumers are aware that it will take several weeks to make adequate preparations -- to apply for and receive a coupon, and to purchase and install a converter box -- to ensure that all of the analog televisions in their household are prepared when the transition occurs."

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