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Klobuchar Warns of DTV ‘Cliff Effect’

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) wrote the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to reiterate her concerns about the DTV "cliff effect."

She pointed out that 21% of her state relies on over-the-air TV and said the FCC and industry need to educate consumers about the issue.

Unlike analog broadcasters, where a weakening signal means an increasingly weak picture, when a digital signal gets weak enough, there is no picture at all. In addition, the coverage areas of digital can vary from analog, as was the case in Wilmington, N.C.

The solution may be repositioning or upgrading antennas, but for some fraction, it will mean losing access to that TV-station signal. Klobuchar said not enough has been done to educate viewers that some may lose their signals even if they buy new DTV sets or converter boxes.

The FCC was aware of the problem and was looking to get a better handle on it by studying Wilmington.

The NTIA oversees the DTV-to-analog converter-box-subsidy program. Those boxes are necessary to allow analog-only sets to receive the new DTV pictures that stations are migrating to Feb. 17, 2009.

Klobuchar's letter comes after antenna problems showed up as a major cause for calls from Wilmington, N.C., TV viewers to the FCC after that market pulled the plug on full-power analog TV early -- Sept. 8 -- to help the FCC get a handle on the problems facing a national roll-out.

“The entire nation will have to make the DTV transition just a few months from now,” Klobuchar said in the letter. “The Wilmington, N.C., switch-over raises concerns about how effectively the federal government is preparing Americans for the DTV transition. The agencies should quickly apply the lessons learned in Wilmington to make sure consumers are aware of the potential coverage and technical problems they may face as part of the DTV transition.”

Klobuchar pointed out that she brought up the reception issue last April at a DTV hearing with FCC chairman Kevin Martin. At that hearing, Klobuchar asked whether the FCC was trying to educate those folks who might lose some signals and need new or different antennas.

Martin said the problem was that it would be hard to identify who those people were until they hooked up their boxes or new TVs, although he pointed out that the consumer-electronics and broadcast industries teamed up on a Web site to help viewers try to figure out if they will need new antennas.

WECT-TV Wilmington, for example, got 232 calls from viewers in outlying areas who lost their TV signals. The FCC attributed that to the fact that its analog signal reached out-of-market viewers -- in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Raleigh, N.C., for example -- who won't receive the Wilmington signal now that it is digital.

An FCC spokesman said Friday that the commission was currently evaluating the complaints that came in and the issues they called about.

She also pointed out in her letter Friday that those falling off the "digital cliff" may be people least able to afford that blow -- rural folks who are less able to afford an antenna upgrade or a cable subscription.

Klobuchar said she wanted answers to the following questions:

· 1. What, if anything, have the FCC and NTIA done to make consumers -- particularly rural viewers -- aware of the potential digital cliff phenomenon?

· 2. What will happen to those viewers who purchase a new television or converter box and nonetheless cannot receive television coverage because of the digital cliff?

· 3. Have the agencies given any thought as to how to make the people affected by the digital cliff whole, especially those who acted in good faith but nevertheless find themselves without an ability to receive over-the-air television? What contingencies are being considered for this group?

· 4. What attention did the FCC give to educating consumers in the Wilmington, N.C., test market about digital-cliff issues prior to the switch-over?

· 5. How does the FCC and/or NTIA plan to quickly share and apply nationally any lessons learned in Wilmington about coverage and technical issues facing consumers?

The Senate Commerce Committee (Klobuchar is a member) is teeing up a post-Wilmington DTV oversight hearing Sept. 23. The House already scheduled its hearing for next Tuesday (Sept. 16).

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.