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Markey, Dingell Call for Changes to Converter-Box Program

Last time they met, Massachusetts Democrat Rep. Ed Markey told Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin Wednesday, he labeled Martin the Tom Brady of the digital-TV transition. Markey said he wanted to change that to the Eli Manning of the transition, referring to the New York Giants' ultimate felling of the then-seemingly invincible New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

That came in a hearing in the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee Wednesday, where Martin and acting National Telecommunications and Information Administration chief Meredith Baker were grilled on the progress of the transition from analog to DTV broadcasting.

It was also against a backdrop of calls by Markey and House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) for changes to the converter-box program and the creation of a task force to coordinate elements of the transition and education campaign.

Martin was praised by Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) for the progress of the 700-megahertz spectrum auction, which raised almost $20 billion, but he was grilled by Markey about a study that suggested that there would be coverage gaps between current analog signals and DTV signals that could leave viewers without channels they had historically received.

Martin said FCC engineers found flaws in the study. He asserted that viewers in the FCC-designated coverage areas today would receive the same signals in digital. He conceded that up to 5% in areas beyond that might lose some channels, although those were not channels they were technically supposed to be getting anyway.

Barry Goodstadt, senior vice president at Centris, says Martin's was an incorrect reading of its study. "In fact, we assumed that consumers had a small or medium-sized omnidirectional antenna," he added. "In point of fact, 75%-83% of consumers have indoor, set-top antennas; about 10% have omnidirectional antennas; and about 10% have directional antennas. Thus our findings actually suggest that consumers will receive better coverage than might actually be the case.”

Markey said he understood that, but Congress was a stimulus-response body and he was concerned about calls from millions of viewers who suddenly weren't getting a channel they had been getting since 1949.

Wal-Mart got a shout-out from several legislators and regulators for its decision to stop carrying analog TVs in its stores, although it said that was only 0.1% of its current stock. RadioShack also committed to taking analog-only TVs off the shelf by March 1. Best Buy was the first major retailer to do so last fall.

Baker said she received the request from Markey and Dingell to allow households to reapply for converter-box coupons, which expire in 90 days, if they miss the expiration date, but she did not commit to that, adding that she would work with legislators to address the issue.

In response to a question about the feasibility of allowing reapplication for expired coupons, Baker said as it moved from the theoretical into the real world, the NTIA would be sympathetic to the issue. She added that she asked IBM, which has been contracted to administer the coupon program, to determine how much the reapplication process would cost.

The NTIA is overseeing a government subsidy program for DTV-to-analog converter boxes that will allow over-the-air viewers with analog-only TV sets to still receive a full-power TV station signal after the transition. Each household that applies can get up to two $40 coupons toward the purchase of the converters, which range in price from $40-$70.

The FCC is responsible for the technical aspects of the transition, reassigning frequencies, adjusting power levels and coverage areas and making sure full-power broadcasters turn off their analog signals by the end of the day Feb. 17, 2009.