Mixed Verdict on DTV Test


Key House Democrats and Republicans are divided on whether millions of consumers will be left in the dark immediately after the digital television transition on Feb. 17, 2009.

Democrats remain nervous despite the apparent success of the early analog-to-digital transition in Wilmington, N.C., on Sept. 8, just five months after five local commercial-TV stations agreed to be the national guinea pigs.

“We must also be cognizant of the fact that Wilmington received extraordinary attention and resources for this test. Such a focused effort will be difficult to replicate on a national scale,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida, the senior Republican on the subcommittee, said at a hearing last Tuesday that he was optimistic about Feb. 17, 2009, going well based on the Wilmington results.

“I thought it was a great success. I believe consumers are well-prepared for this transition,” Stearns said.

Citing data from The Nielsen Co., Stearns said 91% of households had one or more television sets with a digital tuner or with a connection to a pay-TV provider or an over-the-air, digital-to-analog converter box.

“We’re on the right track. This doesn’t mean we can rest completely at ease. There always will be people that will have some trouble,” Stearns said.

Although Capitol Hill Democrats supported the idea of a DTV transition, they have repeatedly questioned the adequacy of the $1.5 billion Congress provided to subsidize converter boxes and whether more federal money should be devoted to consumer education. Not a single House or Senate Democrat voted in December 2005 for the law that created the DTV transition.

Assistant Commerce Secretary Meredith Attwell Baker told Markey’s panel that, based on current redemption rates for converter-box coupons, about $330 million will not be spent.

At the hearing, Markey pointed out that, although a small percentage of Wilmington residents had problems, hundreds did make calls seeking help with installation of their digital-to-analog converter boxes.

Some with properly installed boxes still had to seek help because they didn’t know that they had to conduct a channel scan with the box to locate digital signals.

The Federal Communications Commission, moreover, had personnel in Wilmington for five months and paid local fire departments to help consumers resolve various equipment issues.

“To extrapolate what might happen nationally from this test may be difficult, but it is clear that a fairly significant number of consumers in Wilmington called stations or the FCC with implementation problems at home,” Markey said.