DTV transition on track for broadcasters

The Government Accountability Office says broadcasters are on track to make the switch from analog to digital TV in February 2009. But are consumers ready for the move?

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

The transition to digital TV is going smoothly for broadcasters, according to a government report issued earlier this week. But lawmakers are still worried that consumers may still be confused or unaware of the change.

In February 2009, TV broadcasters will vacate wireless spectrum used to broadcast analog TV signals. Instead, broadcasters will transmit digital TV signals, which use spectrum more efficiently and provide better picture quality. The transition to digital means that some older TVs, and TVs with analog-only tuners, will have to be retrofitted to tune into digital signals.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued Tuesday said about 91 percent of the 1,122 full-power TV stations that answered their survey said they were already broadcasting a digital TV signal.

"Broadcast stations have made substantial progress in transitioning to DTV, with the vast majority already transmitting a digital signal," the GAO concluded.

But the Web site Ars Technica points out that the agency got answers from only about 66.7 percent of the 1,747 full-power TV license holders in the Federal Communications Commission's database. The article notes that "while the report's conclusions are still encouraging, the phrase 'vast majority' may be a tad overoptimistic."

The agency's study also said some stations still had technical and logistical issues to work out before the February 17, 2009, deadline for making the big switch from analog to digital broadcast.

"Some of these stations still need to order equipment, such as antennas, to build their final digital facilities. Furthermore, stations may have coordination issues to address, to complete their final digital facilities," the agency said. "Stations also need to coordinate with cable providers and satellite companies to ensure that cable and satellite facilities receive digital signals when the analog signals are turned off."

While it looks like the TV broadcasters are on track to meet the deadline, some lawmakers worry that there is still confusion about what the digital transition means to consumers.

"Far too many Americans are unaware of, or unprepared for, February 17, 2009," Senate Commerce Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) said in a statement after the GAO's report was released. "It is imperative that all stakeholders in the DTV transition, both public and private, work together to ensure that local communities are fully informed and prepared for the transition, and that no consumer is left in the dark."

It's estimated that there are 70 million or so analog TV sets that rely on over-the-air signals. And because many of these TVs belong to minorities, senior citizens, low-income individuals, and people who live in rural areas, the fear is that these individuals will not be ready for when broadcasters stop transmitting analog TV signals in February 2009.

While TVs made after March 2007 will have digital tuners built-in, TVs made before then won't. This means that some folks will have to either buy a new TV or get a digital-tuner box, which will be subsidized by the government. The government is already offering vouchers to help people buy these boxes.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which has already spent millions of dollars in efforts to educate the public, has said awareness is increasing. According to a new survey by the trade organization, almost 80 percent of households with a TV have at least some knowledge of the digital transition, up from 38 percent a year ago.

Under pressure from the FCC and lawmakers, broadcasters earlier this year agreed to run at least four advertisements a week during prime-time hours, along with a 30-minute show about the transition before the February 17 deadline next year, to educate the public about the transition.