FCC Worries Over Digital Laggards


"Yes, June 12 is Congress' final answer," said FCC DTV
transition coordinator William Lake, in a status report to the commissioners 30
days ahead if the digital transition date.

Lake warned that 3.5 million people
had still not taken the actions necessary to avoid losing access to their TV
signal, saying many of those were in the most vulnerable populations, including
the elderly, low-income households, the disabled, minorities and rural

Conveying a sense of urgency, Lake
told the commissioners that the key was doing everything possible so that those
viewers did not lose their "only link, in some cases, to news and the world at

That message came in a DTV status report during the
commission's public meeting Wednesday.

FCC staffers and National Telecommuni DTV coupon-box program
coordinator Bernie McGuire-Rivera outlined the steps the FCC and NTIA
are taking to convey that urgency and help those populations get ready.

That includes the planned national soft analog plug-pulling
test on May 21, which the FCC says NAB and
the networks and station groups and cable and satellite operators will be
participating in.

Lake said the FCC is prepared to
handle over 200,000 in-home installations of converter boxes. The FCC call
center will be ready to ramp up to 4,000 operators and can now handle calls in
about 100 languages.

He said that the FCC has issued 46 contracts for assistance
programs, 21 for in-home installations, 13 for inhome expert advice, and 12 for
walk-in help centers. Firefighters will pitch in and help in areas not covered
by the contracts. Americorp volunteers and FCC boots on the ground continue
their outreach efforts as well.

The FCC is also starting a media push, particularly to
ethnic media, to get the word out. Acting chairman Michael Copps gave a shout-out
to the trade press for their coverage of the transition, but said he wished the
national media was doing more on the story.

McGuire-Rivera said the NTIA
was also ramping up its media effort, including both earned and paid media. She
said NTIA had started advertising on buses
in 22 cities because lower-income populations used buses more often. She said
that NTIA had been avoiding paid advertising
because it was expensive, but was not doing more paid advertising with ethnic

She also said that NTIA
had mobile assistance centers (vans) and booths in 24 cities, saying that in
the DTV "search and rescue" phase, the vans were the ambulances.

Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein joked that he kind of liked
the idea of seeing the ads on buses because they "go slower than NASCARs and
crash less often," a reference to the sponsorship of a DTV transition-themed
race car under former FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.

Copps praised McGuire-Rivera for NTIA's
having cleared out the converter box coupon waiting list, and said new Commerce
Secretary Gary Locke had "thrown himself" into the effort, saying that when
Copps had called him the day before he had been told he was busy taping DTV

Copps echoed his sentiment that the Feb. 17 transition date
would have been a disaster and thanked the president and Congress for moving it.

He said there would still be disruptions, citing some people
who will procrastinate and others who will have reception problems no matter
what they did to prepare because of the different propagation characteristics
of digital or the move of transmitters. "No all problems will be resolved
between now and June 12," he said, "and candor compels us to so inform affected

For one thing, the FCC has mandated that stations who lose
more than 2% of their analog viewership in the transition to digital inform
their viewers of that fact.

"I assure you of one thing," Copps said. "The FCC's
commitment does not end at the converter box or on June 12. We will be working
just as hard in the days and weeks following June 12."