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Markey Wants Some DTV Answers

Rep Ed. Markey (D-MA) has asked the heads of the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecomunications & Information Administration for a status report on the DTV transition with now only 60 days until the national cut-off, and even fewer for certain stations and markets.

The FCC is handling the technically switch to digital TV, while NTIA is overseeing the government subsidy program for converter boxes that will allow analog-only TV sets to continue to receive a full-power TV signal after Feb. 17, 2009.

One of Markey’s concerns is that there could be a shortfall of those converter boxes given that he understands IBM estimates there are 11.2 million boxes currently in inventory, production, or shipping, while NTIA esimates the total demand at 33.5 million boxes.

Nielsen has just released its latest estimate that 7 million households still rely exclusively on analog over-the-air signals for their television. Three million more have at least one set that is not ready for DTV, though in some cases those could be used for exclusively for gaming or DVD-watching or other non-broadcast purposes.

In addition, Markey, chairman of the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, said he has concerns about funding for coupons, call centers, and much more.
In letters to to NTIA Acting head Meredith Baker and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, he outlined those concerns.

Markey told Martin that he thought consumer confusion remained an issue, citing a recent analog cut-off test in Boston, and said he shared Martin's concern about there being enough money to fund the converter box program.

If NTIA’s DTV coupon redemption rate remains at about 50%, there would technically be plenty of money for the program, with NTIA estimating being able to return several hundred million to the treasury. But an accounting lag between sending out coupons and their expiration dates, which frees up the money to be used for new coupons, could slow coupon distribution by mid-January, NTIA has said. Congress, which set the funding cap ($1.34 billion including administration costs), would likely have to lift it to make sure that the program was not delayed, though Markey said in his letter to Baker that there was "precious little time remaining to act legislatively." He also asked Baker whether she thinks  the cap will need to be lifted to meet expected consumer demand. NTIA is said to favor that move.Markey asked a number of questions of both to be answered by Dec. 23, including whether Martin believes the transition is on track, whether he thinks there will be enough money for the converter box program, how the FCC plans to spend its remaining converter box education money, whether he thinks the FCC has enough folks and money to handle phone calls about the transition and whether he thinks private-sector call center efforts will make up the difference--NAB has announced its own call center initiative, and more.

“With less than two months until the deadline, we need to make sure the nation is on track for a successful transition," said Markey in announcing his request for information. "I remain concerned that a high demand for coupons, consumer confusion, and lack of converter box availability and call center capability may jeopardize success. The FCC and NTIA are tasked with ensuring that the public is fully aware of how to receive the new digital signal. Today I am requesting prompt answers from these agencies about their readiness and their latest projections on consumer demand and the need for additional efforts.”

“NTIA is closely monitoring coupon statistics and working closely with all stakeholders to ensure a successful transition and to ensure that relevant information, such as Coupon Program demand, can form the basis for any necessary adjustments to the Program,” said NTIA Communications Director Todd Sedmak.