The DTV launch is a shambles, say FCC commissioners

The call earlier this week by President-Elect Obama's transition team to perhaps delay next month's DTV switch didn't just "come up" at Saturday's "2009 Regulatory Outlook" panel at CES. It electrified it.

Jonathan Adelstein and Robert McDowell, both commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission, have seen trouble coming for a very long time. Adelstein has served at the FCC since 2002, and McDowell began his first term in 2006.

Remember the coordinated governmental effort to fix and work around potential Y2K problems? That tech initiative, like the DTV transition, involved multiple agencies. And that's where the coordination comparison ends. Where the Y2K effort had top-down supervision from the White House, various guidelines to action, and synchronized effort, this has...well, at least it's only television, not a hurricane aimed at a major US city.

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Nobody will actually drown thanks to a botched DTV rollout, but Adelstein and McDowell's description gave listeners the sense that the program has been in rough water since well before the transition team's remarks on Thursday. No one -- at the FCC or any other agency -- is tasked specifically with the changeover; there's no White House staffer cracking the whip. No one was charged with developing guidelines or information for the nation's 1,600-odd broadcasters, or for equipment manufacturers, or support teams. And, says McDowell, without coordination "we haven't maximized even the limited resources we had."

The results have been disturbing. A plan to reach the nation's 210 television market areas (TMAs) by working with mayors fizzled out, Adelstein remarked, when "somebody moved." State and local consumer-edition efforts suffered because the feds haven't been able to communicate what's happening and what to expect; in fact, both men said, feds, broadcasters and contractors often didn't know about important developments unless and until they were reported in the trade press. And the performance of the two toll-free consumer hotlines (888-CALL-FCC and 888-DTV-2009) would make the worst tech-support line operators blush.

With no coordination and no guidance, FCC field reps and the local TMAs have reached out to anyone who can maybe help, "reinventing the wheel" in each market as Adelstein put it. In some locales, someone thought to speak to ham radio operators about assisting in wiring up citizens who needed help; in other places, the Salvation Army was contacted. McDowell said that focused efforts were made to tap groups serving those who might not understand the situation -- AARP and other senior groups to work with the elderly, for instance, and PBS call centers in locales where public TV is well-established.

But delaying the launch will make some problems worse, especially for companies that have invested in digital with the promise of this final firm 2009 date. And some problems will exist whatever the roll date might be, notes McDowell: "There's always a certain percentage of procrastinators as well as those who through no fault of their own aren't ready. We don't know where we are necessarily, and unfortunately the only way to know [where these people are] is to have their screens go dark." There'll be a thirty-day period after the rollout for reaching out to those citizens, he says, but they'll be there regardless, and "for those who act at the last minute you need to have a last minute."

There are an amazing number of local issues turning up, too. For instance, says McDowell, they've just realized that many houses in Las Vegas are built mainly of stucco and chicken wire -- accidental Faraday cages. Those houses will need a rooftop booster, and there's no "coupon plan" for that. (The coupon plan has been in trouble for awhile; at this point, the commissioners estimated that there could be as many as 5 million applications by next month.)

To coin a phrase, what the heck happened? One audience member pointedly said that she'd attended hearings at which the NTIA and FCC had pledged to work together on the transition -- "What happened?" The panel members laughed, a little, and one noted that "[FCC Chairman Kevin Martin] speaks at 1:30 -- that'd be a good question to ask him."

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