FCC confident about digital-TV preparedness

Officials say they are feeling more positive about the switch to digital TV than they were before the previous deadline thanks to coordinated efforts among different agencies.

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 nationwide transition to digital TV is just 30 days away, and Federal Communications Commission officials are feeling much more positive about the switch than they were leading up to the previous deadline in February.

On Wednesday, the FCC received updates from various agencies helping to prepare for the new June 12 deadline for the switch to digital TV. In addition to adding more money to the converter box coupon program, efforts are already under way to get AmeriCorps volunteers to go into people's homes and help with converter box installation. Clinics have also been set up in hot-spot regions to help educate people about the program and to help them figure out how to install converter boxes and antennas.

Already some 170,000 homes have gone through one of these programs to have their converter boxes installed. The acting chairman of the FCC, Michael Copps, said he is impressed by the coordinated effort that is under way.

"In January I feared about where we were headed with this transition," he said. "But it has turned into an inspiring and enjoyable experience to see how these different agencies can work together. "

While Copps said he believes that Americans are better prepared now for the transition to digital television than they were prior to the February 17 deadline, he said that there will still be some people who will see blank TV screens on June 12, when all TV stations will be broadcasting in digital.

"Even though we are better prepared this time," he said. "There will still be disruptions for some consumers. And candor compels us to inform viewers of these issues."

To deal with the many people who might lose TV signals in June, the FCC has set up 4,000 call centers and is beefing up staffing to answer consumer phone calls. Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein pointed out during the FCC's meeting that only 15 percent of households in the U.S. were affected when some broadcasters transitioned to all digital broadcasts on the original February 17 deadline.

Anticipating complaints
He also anticipates a flood of complaints from consumers who are not prepared for the transition. But he is also optimistic about the progress the agency has made over the past three months.

"We've gotten to the 30-day countdown before," he said. "And I have to say I was a lot more nervous before than I am this time."

In an effort to help identify trouble spots before the hard deadline of June 12, the FCC is planning a soft-test of the digital switch on May 21. On that date, all broadcasters will be asked to switch to digital-only broadcast for a few minutes. People who have older TVs that have not been equipped with a converter box will be able to tell whether they are prepared to receive digital programming.

"This will be like a DTV stress test for consumers," Adelstein said. "Let's hope we do better than the banks did in their stress tests."

Three months ago, 6.5 million households were unprepared for the switch to digital TV, according to research firm Nielsen. At that time Congress voted to delay the transition from February to June. Now it's believed that the number of people who are unprepared for the transition is less than half that number, or roughly 3.5 million households.

Most of these people are either elderly, in a minority group, poor, or living in rural areas. The FCC and other agencies helping with the transition have been targeting these at-risk households to ensure they are prepared.

While most people are now aware of the transition to digital, the problem now is helping people get converter boxes to allow older TVs to receive digital signals and to help install that equipment. Coupons are available under a government program to help pay for converter boxes, which cost $40 to $80. But earlier this year, more than 4 million people were on a waiting list for the coupons after the government ran out of money to fund the program.

With new funding under the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, the backlog is now gone. And the group administering the program says it has enough money to provide the necessary coupons.

Viewers who watch TV via cable or satellite will not need a converter box and won't have to do anything to prepare for the digital transition.