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FCC: Some DTV transition hiccups still anticipated

The Federal Communications Commission says most consumers are prepared for the June 12 switch to digital TV, but it still expects some issues and outreach continues.

The digital TV transition is less than two weeks away, and even though most Americans are prepared for the big switch, the Federal Communications Commission still expects a few hiccups.

The FCC on Tuesday held a public hearing where representatives from different FCC bureaus and leaders from various groups involved in educating and preparing the public for the switch to digital TV broadcast updated commissioners on their progress. The FCC and Commerce Department have partnered with community organizations, churches, public safety departments, civil rights groups, consumer groups and broadcasters around the country to get people ready for the transition. These education and outreach programs were thrown into high gear after Congress voted to postpone the transition from February 17 to June 12.

FCC staff members as well as other experts agreed that the nation is much better prepared now for the DTV transition than it was in February. But they testified there will be some individuals and groups of people who will still experience problems when all full-powered TV stations in the country flip the switch to digital transmission.

One major issue cited by Eloise Gore, associate bureau chief of the FCC's media bureau, is that some 35 TV stations around the country are expected to go dark after the switch. Eighteen of these stations are having financial problems, she said. The other 17 stations are experiencing technical issues that are preventing them from switching to digital, Gore said during her testimony. These TV stations may be able to get their signals back online by the end of the year, she said.

Some of the TV stations that are expected to stop transmitting signals are affiliates of a major TV network, such as ABC, NBC, CBS, or Fox. But Gore added that viewers who lose these channels can scan for that network on a subchannel of another TV station and may be able to access that network.

Another potential problem cited by Julius Knapp, chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology for the FCC, is that even people who have gotten their new digital converter boxes or who have digital-ready TVs are having difficulty with their antennas. He said consumers need to make sure that they have antennas that can receive UHF and VHF signals. He also said some viewers may have to adjust their antennas to get the digital TV signals. And he noted that viewers who have already been using converter boxes and antennas to get over the-air-digital TV should still rescan their boxes to find the new digital signals, since some signals may have shifted after the cut-over to all-digital transmission.

Knapp also noted that his office has been updating information on its Web site about antennas and these other issues to help provide more information to consumers. The office has also been working with retailers so that they can provide better advice to consumers about which antenna will work best for them.

Already switched
Even though disruptions are expected after the June 12 deadline, the reality is that about half of the 1,800 full-power TV stations required to transition to digital transmission have already done so. Many of these stations have been transmitting in digital since the original February 17 deadline.

Education and outreach programs appear to be working. The most recent polling data from Nielsen suggests that only about 3 million households that rely on over-the-air TV are unprepared for the transition. This figure is down from about 6 million households that were unprepared leading up to the February 17 deadline. The people who are still left out appear to be procrastinators and some in at-risk groups, such as elderly, low-income, or rural viewers, said Cathy Seidel, chief of the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. And the agency is continuing to target those groups.

The Commerce Department has been offering $40 coupons to help offset the cost of digital converter boxes to allow older TVs to receive digital signals. And government officials say there is enough money and vouchers available to continue the program until its deadline of July 31. But officials did warn that people applying for coupons now may not get them in time for the June 12 deadline.

Despite that good news, some of the commissioners still have concerns. Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell, who President Obama renominated for his current post, said he was concerned about what would happen after the transition was completed. Specifically, he wanted to know how the FCC would pay for the 4,000 telephone operators it planned to have in place to answer calls from consumers having problems. The FCC needs about $10 million to pay for these operators.

Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, associate administrator at the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said these funds could be allocated from the Commerce Department, which received $650 million from the economic stimulus package to help fund the DTV coupon program. The agency has the authority to distribute about $90 million of that money to the FCC for digital TV education efforts. The FCC has already received about $65 million of the funding, but the Commerce Department has been holding about $25 million in case more is needed for the coupon program.

McGuire-Rivera said she didn't see any major problems in getting the $10 million transferred from the Commerce Department to the FCC. But the transfer must still be approved by Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, which she anticipates will happen.

Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein expressed his concern that roughly 31 percent of TV households in various markets will not have access to "analog nightlight" services. The "nightlight" program is a voluntary program in which TV stations agree to keep an analog signal turned on in addition to their digital signals to provide information about the DTV transition and to notify unprepared TV viewers of emergencies, such as hurricanes.

Only about 100 stations plan to maintain "analog nightlight" notifications after the switch. More than half of those nightlights will remain on air for 30 days. And the rest will be on for at least two weeks. In total, these stations will reach 69 percent of TV households.

Representatives from the FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters said they are still trying to recruit more TV stations to provide nightlight broadcasts, and they expect to add more to the list.