Ready or Not, Here Comes DTV

How far has the federal campaign for the DTV transition gone? The National Telecommunications & Information Administration has considered deploying the Boy Scouts of America to help inform over-the-air analog TV viewers that they could lose their TV picture at 12:01 a.m. on Feb. 18, 2009, just one year from today, unless they get a converter box, a new TV, or are already hooked up to cable or satellite.

Converter box retailers held talks with Boy Scout organizations about coming up with a DTV transition merit badge for helping some older ladies and gentlemen cross the digital divide, though the plan may be scrapped over concerns about sending scouts into strangers' homes. Meanwhile, the FCC is talking to Meals on Wheels about delivering DTV education along with food.

But while the Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared,” “Beware” is a message getting a lot of traction in Washington these days. Consumer groups and others are concerned that viewers are not being told about potential cut-off dates, and that viewers aren't getting the transition information and technical help they will need.

Nervous legislators and regulators fear they will be the target of consumer (read: voter) backlash. Broadcasters are concerned that new unlicensed wireless devices will interfere with those beautiful new pictures. And some cable programmers are suing in federal court because they're concerned they'll be kicked off the dial in some markets because of capacity issues caused by government mandates.

Markey: 'more needs to be done'

The transition from analog to digital television has been decades in the making and has seen a number of deadlines come and go, but the Feb. 18, 2009, hard date has to stick. Virtually all broadcasters are simulcasting a digital signal, some have already gone all-digital, and the FCC is auctioning a chunk of the analog spectrum TV stations now use. It's already counting nearly $20 billion in bids from various telecom companies.

“We have an auction going on right now selling off those airwaves,” FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell said recently. “Once they are sold, we'd better clear them, or else our customers will be very angry if we can't deliver the goods.” Broadcasters are also concerned about meeting construction deadlines and clearing up interference issues.

“Public interest in the converter box coupon program is off to a brisk start,” Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told B&C. At presstime, about 2.4 million people had applied for 4.7 million coupons. But Markey said “more needs to be done” to make sure the transition goes “as smoothly as possible.” For one thing, he wants the NTIA to allow consumers to reapply for DTV converter box coupons, which expire after 90 days, if they don't get to use them in that time frame. Markey and 20 colleagues sent a letter to acting NTIA chief Meredith Atwell Baker last week requesting the change, saying it was legal and good for consumers. She said she would look into it and that NTIA would try to be flexible on the issue. Reapplying would allow those who get the first round of coupons in late February to wait until EchoStar's new $39.99 box becomes more widely available this summer. (The Consumer Electronics Association estimates that 13 million households get TV over the air.)

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who also signed the letter, agrees that the transition needs more work. He said in advance of Markey's DTV transition hearing last week that he was not confident that anybody—government, broadcasters, retailers or other stakeholders—was taking “all the necessary steps.”

There was a marathon hearing in the House last week on the status of the transition that focused on low-power, converter boxes and DTV coverage issues. Democrats in control of both Houses and on the FCC have expressed concern that the effort is not well coordinated.

“I would depict current efforts, taken as a whole, as lacking the successful ingredients of anything resembling a seamless DTV transition,” FCC Commissioner Michael Copps told B&C. What would make him breathe easier? “A coordinated, private-public sector partnership with a unified message for consumers and some trial runs in different types of media markets.” His fellow Democrat on the FCC, Jonathan Adelstein, shares that concern, and has called, so far without success, for a DTV coordinating task force. That call was renewed last week by Dingell and his opposite number on the Senate side, Commerce Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). The pair went straight to the top, asking President Bush to create the task force ASAP.

Republican commissioners see it quite differently. Robert McDowell told B&C he is “optimistic” about the progress to date. “The FCC has released rules to guide broadcasters through the technical work of the transition,” he said. “We are also working to ensure that over-the-air viewers understand the practical steps they must take. If industry and government continue to work together, a smooth and seamless transition will become a reality.”

NTIA has also taken issue with the “lack of coordination” criticism by Democrats, arguing that what doesn't exist is an overarching “command and control operation” that could lack flexibility.

One anomaly in the ambitious DTV transition deadline is that millions of viewers will be getting analog signals for years afterward. And a bill was introduced last week that would allow stations on the Mexican border to continue broadcasting in analog for five years past the transition to supply emergency information and news to border viewers slow to make the switch. That's because low-power stations and translators, which relay a full-power signal to remote areas, are not on the same timetable. The FCC gave the smaller, shallower-pocketed stations longer to make the switch, setting no hard date, an issue that legislators focused attention on in last week's hearings.

The Community Broadcasters Association notes that while some 1,750 full-power TV stations have to go digital in 2009, the other 80% of TV stations—2,794 low-power stations and 4,418 translators serving millions of viewers—don't.

CBA President Ron Bruno last week said the fact that the DTV-to-analog converter boxes were not allowed to contain analog tuners, and that only four of 37 NTIA-certified boxes even pass through an analog signal, could mean bankruptcy for the low-power industry. As Bruno told legislators, “We need help,” which he says should include mandating that all converters have analog tuners.

Coincidentally, many low-powers are in urban and remote locations that are also home to the minority and ethnic populations that are more likely to be analog-only viewers. And many low-power stations do not have must-carry rights—they are more reliant on over-the-air viewing.

And low-power doesn't mean low-impact. Greg Herman, former president of the CBA, owns 15 low-power and Class A stations in Oregon, including the Telemundo and TeleFutura affiliates in the Portland market—the first Spanish-language broadcaster in the market, he says.

Herman says the converter box issue is “huge” because none of the three Spanish-language stations in the market are full power. He adds that a “tremendously large” percentage of Spanish-language programming is on low-power stations, with no requirement to transmit in digital. He estimates there are only five or six digital LPTV stations in the country: “Folks are still looking at it. They don't have any immediate plans to go digital.”

But it isn't only low-power broadcasters who are concerned. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is proposing a number of moves to help them. He wants the other commissioners to go along with a plan, scheduled for a Feb. 26 vote, that would set a hard date of 2012 for low-powers to convert to DTV. It can't be earlier, he says, because the $65 million Congress has allocated to help some of them make the transition doesn't become available until 2010, though NTIA is pushing Congress to release the money this year.

Martin is asking cable and satellite companies to voluntarily carry low-powers during the switch, but is also proposing giving 600 or so low-powers a fast track to full-power status and cable must-carry rights, much to the chagrin of cable operators. Herman, by contrast, praises the chairman: “Chairman Martin has been very helpful and really legitimately wants to help solve this problem.”

The National Association of Broadcasters board of directors has created a task force on the issue and has asked DTV converter box manufacturers to start making new boxes that pass through an analog signal, and Martin has said he is meeting with manufacturers as well.

Looking for a 'low-power' fix

The NTIA's Baker is also looking for a low-power fix. “We have also told manufacturers that we will expedite the recertification of their next version of the converter boxes if they include the analog pass-through feature,” she says. She is confident that there will be more such boxes available by the time the coupons become widely available.

While Feb. 18, 2009, is the switch, Feb. 18, 2008, is turning into a red-letter day, too. That is when the NTIA says it will start processing the coupons that will help viewers pay for a converter box. Those viewers will start getting them in late February or early March.

Money has been a contentious issue when it comes to the DTV education campaign. Democratic legislators and FCC commissioners continue to point out that Britain spent more than a billion dollars on an education and outreach campaign for a population of a little over 60 million, including a lot of hands-on instruction and personal visits.

By contrast, Congress set aside only $5 million for NTIA's education campaign and no money for the FCC, though it has since gotten $2.5 million for fiscal year 2008. And just two weeks ago, the Bush administration proposed giving the FCC another $20 million for FY 2009, though it won't get that money until fall 2008 and several legislators said last week that still didn't sound like enough.

The NTIA is looking to leverage that $5 million through widespread voluntary efforts, like those of the DTV Coalition, and through government partners including the Veterans Administration and Department of Agriculture, as well as groups that can reach out to the communities with the largest analog-only populations. Those have been identified as elderly, economically disadvantaged, rural, minority and disabled viewers.

That is where help from scouting groups could come in handy. Best Buy Senior VP Michael Vitelli told B&C that the company has had preliminary discussions with both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts about coming up with a community service project to help older people or others who might not be able to set up the boxes. “I don't know if it came from us or the NTIA first,” he said, “but it is a great idea.”

Among the other creative proposals: adding DTV transition information on grocery store receipts; distributing it to VA hospitals, where the audience is often lower-income, minority, disabled and heavy TV consumers; putting posters in post offices and motor-vehicle bureaus; and the FCC's proposed Meals on Wheels outreach.

Broadcasters have committed to their own wide-ranging education campaign, including traveling demonstrations—a truck shaped like a TV—a speakers' bureau and PSAs. But under pressure from congressional Democrats, FCC Chairman Martin has proposed requiring broadcasters to carry a minimum number of PSAs, including in primetime.

And while the transition is primarily broadcast, cable operators have also joined in the effort for the sake of good corporate citizenship, says National Cable & Telecommunications Association President Kyle McSlarrow. In addition, Martin wants operators to carry low-power stations during the transition; the FCC in September required cable operators to carry TV stations in both digital and analog for three years after the transition if that's what it takes to deliver a viewable TV signal to its subscribers.

Two weeks ago, a group of programmers led by C-SPAN and Discovery took those rules to court, saying the government was picking favorites, favoring broadcasters over cable channels that might have to be bumped to make room for them. While NCTA says it is committed to that carriage whether or not the courts overturn the rule, smaller operators with greater capacity constraints support the suit. Broadcasters, backing Martin, say that suit could prove another impediment to the DTV transition.

Meanwhile, broadcasters are seeing red over so-called “white spaces.” David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV), which lobbies on broadcaster spectrum issues in Washington, has been helping to lead the fight against an initiative, led by computer companies, to allow unlicensed wireless devices such as laptops and spectrum-sensing radios to operate in the spaces between DTV channels.

The FCC proposed the sharing scheme and began testing the devices earlier this year, only to find they did indeed interfere with TV broadcasts. But one of the devices being tested was faulty, according to the big computer companies pushing for their use, and the FCC is currently retesting them.

Donovan says allowing them could be a “huge problem” for consumers. “If you are trying to use a personal and portable device with a small antenna, no matter how good the device is, the antenna won't be sensitive enough,” he says. “It will conclude that channels are vacant when they are, in fact, occupied.” Computer companies like Google and Microsoft have countered that the argument is a red herring and broadcasters are simply trying to protect their turf.

Just last week, the NAB was touting a report that one of the devices had “failed” in the second round of testing as well. Donovan isn't surprised by the report. Microsoft withdrew a device the last time around, he says, and has withdrawn one of two in this round of testing: “It appears these devices just aren't ready for primetime.”

Hold the phone, says Microsoft, which counters that it was a power problem, not a sensing problem, and that the FCC was still testing an “electronically identical device” that was working fine.

A study released last week by market research firm Centris claims there are huge gaps in DTV coverage that the FCC has not taken into account. Centris says that the DTV education campaign needs to explain the need for antennas to over-the-air viewers and that unless the FCC finds the gaps and lets viewers know about them, there are going to be 1) frustrated consumers left in the dark; 2) returns of converter boxes and sets; and 3) those dreaded complaints to government officials and stations.

If that is true, broadcasters and legislators could be in a heap of trouble. Pressed about the study last week during a House hearing, Martin conceded that some 5% of viewers might need new antennas or could lose access to some channels, but that they were in the fringes beyond a station's FCC coverage area.

MSTV, which vetted the study, concluded that it was not based on real-world signal strength measurements and did not provide a “realistic assessment” of DTV coverage. “They don't really understand the analysis we did,” said Barry Goodstadt, senior VP for Centris.

As for the Feb. 18, 2009, deadline, Donovan believes the industry will be able to meet it. “The real issue is how long it takes for the commission to process requests and make decisions in time for stations to buy equipment,” he says. “We have our fingers crossed.” 

Special Report continued:Stations Ready for Mobile DTV Trials

John Eggerton

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.