Give Seniors Fair Warning on DTV

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It’s been nearly two years since Congress established the official transition date from analog TV broadcasting to digital, yet virtually no U.S. consumer knows what will happen on Feb. 17, 2009. On that date, broadcast-TV stations will switch from analog to digital signals. The transition offers the country the return of valuable “beachfront-property” spectrum that can be used to enhance emergency communications, spur innovation and improve broadband connectivity.

One other thing will happen on Feb. 17, 2009: Twenty-two million consumers who watch over-the-air TV with an analog set will have that set go dark, including 8 million households with at least one member older than 50.

The government is, of course, aware of this problem. Congress has allocated funding for an education program. The relevant agencies have required that manufacturers stop producing new analog televisions and that retailers properly label the remaining analog sets at the point of sale. Congress has also allocated funding for coupons to help consumers pay for the converter boxes they’ll need to get their analog sets to work again.

Yet, based on preliminary U.S. Public Interest Group research, neither government nor retailers are adequately preparing consumers for the impending digital-TV transition.

As of August 2007, U.S. PIRG completed a preliminary study that surveyed the top-five electronics retailers in metropolitan Washington, D.C. Our initial findings, based on interviews with clerks and supervisory personnel, are alarming. Despite industry promises to educate and prepare the staff, all five retailers had personnel that provided inaccurate or misleading information.

In almost every store surveyed, we found a number of analog TV sets on the shelves, sometimes labeled on the box or on the shelf. In all stores surveyed, though, it could be easy for a consumer to miss the warning labels. It is crucial that bargain-hunting shoppers aren’t duped into purchasing a slightly discounted analog television set when they’ll have to purchase a converter just months later.

Recently, the FCC mandated cable operators convert signals for analog subscribers for a period of three years after the 2009 transition. Almost simultaneously, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association began to air commercials promising to “take care of all that transition stuff.”

What those ads fail to tell consumers is exactly how much the conversion will cost cable subscribers and that after three years of converting, analog TV owners will be left in the dark. Three years after the transition, the coupon program will be long gone and the millions of consumers who trusted cable to take care of the transition will be forced to buy a new television.

If consumers choose to use today’s coupon program, they receive a one-time discount for one converter box. The cable “solution” leaves consumers paying for the cost of the conversion on a monthly basis indefinitely and then, after three years, forces them to find a new way to transition their televisions.

There is one thing that’s coming through loud and clear in the DTV dilemma: Industry will be doing its best to use conversion confusion to its advantage. That means government must take steps to police the transition, otherwise we’re leaving consumers vulnerable and unprotected.

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