With the nation set to undergo its historic shift to digital television on Feb. 17, 2009, Democratic FCC member Michael Copps has been championing the idea of a test run. Copps wants a few cities of various sizes to terminate their analog signals early to gauge the impact, study unintended consequences and assist with preparing for the broader transition.
"I don't want to find out what all the problems are on Feb. 18, 2009," the regulator said during an impromptu interview at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month.
But Chairman Kevin Martin's appeared to reject the proposal during a recent press briefing. "I'm not opposed to [it], but I'm not sure that we have the time do that anymore," said Martin, a Republican, adding that he is not aware of any cities that have volunteered and doesn't want to be distracted from the larger changeover.
Asked if he's partly responsible for the lack of time, Martin noted that Congress originally envisioned a phased transition before adopting a firm deadline. But lawmakers never discouraged a test and if the agency had contemplated one earlier, the decision could have based on the merits, not the calendar. The potential missed opportunity is the kind of thing that critics have in mind when they describe the move to digital as a rudderless ship lacking leadership.
On Track Or Off Course?
Martin said the FCC is making progress toward DTV, pointing to new rules adopted in September requiring the availability of digital channels over cable systems and the $2.5 million Congress reserved for the FCC to spend on outreach. Last month, the commission issued a 148-page report detailing steps that broadcasters must take to finalize their digital operations.
The National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association also consider the transition on track, as do Republicans who crafted the deadline and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that will distribute coupons to help millions of consumers ease the cost of converters needed to keep older sets functioning.
But a chorus of Democrats, watchdogs and even some broadcasters warn that the switchover is veering dangerously off course. They argue that Martin should have spent more time prepping for this monumental shift and less time on distractions such as his plan to relax limits on media ownership approved last month.
"The February 2009 digital TV deadline looms, but the FCC has pushed aside urgent items on consumer education and broadcaster readiness to consider media ownership," Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., complained in a statement following the vote.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee recently announced that it will hold a DTV oversight hearing Feb. 13. Senate Commerce is planning a similar session for Feb. 14, sources said, though a spokeswoman cautioned that the panel's schedule hasn't been finalized.
The Clock Is Ticking
The FCC has signaled that it is running out of time to ease the burden of segueing the nation's 1,812 analog broadcasters to digital. A comprehensive FCC report on the digital conversion that was quietly released the afternoon of New Year's Eve hammers home the point. "We recognize that the transition is a complex undertaking presenting many challenges to the broadcast industry," it says, adding that "some disruptions of television service may be unavoidable leading up to the analog turn-off."
The document reveals that some stations will be permitted to reduce or cease airing their analog or pre-transition digital channels up to 30 days before Feb. 17, 2009, without prior agency approval. That would enable them to finish constructing post-transition digital facilities. Other broadcasters are being allowed to cease analog transmissions earlier with FCC approval if doing so enables them to switch to digital on time. In rare situations when construction benchmarks simply cannot be met, the agency will let stations apply for extensions beyond the deadline.
The report was unanimously approved by the agency's five commissioners, but the two Democrats voiced complaints despite being encouraged by the numerous steps the FCC has taken. "A year's earlier start might have been the difference between a seamless and a chaotic digital TV transition," Copps wrote in an accompanying statement.
Jonathan Adelstein added, "The continued lack of a national, federal and an internal FCC coordination plan have left us in the unfortunate position of playing catch-up."
The lack of a concrete plan also is evident in Martin's comments about DTV outreach. At CES, he was firm: "Most of the education needs to occur as we get closer to the digital transition date."
Martin was on friendly turf taking questions from Gary Shapiro, head of the CEA, and delivering a message that its members, many of whom were showcasing the latest in high-definition technology, wanted to hear. A week later at a press conference in Washington, with House Energy and Commerce lawmakers revving up an investigation of the chairman's management style, Martin struck a different tone: "At this point, the main focus of the DTV transition" needs to be consumer education.
Interviewed in Las Vegas about Martin's original comments, Copps said, "I don't buy that." Emphasizing that it takes a long time to educate 300 million Americans about altering something as fundamental as television, he said: "Why wait? Why take a chance and roll the dice that we can do this at the end of the line?"
NTIA To The Rescue -- Maybe
Few Americans have heard of the agency, but NTIA, part of the Commerce Department, is playing a key role in shepherding the transition. On Jan. 1 it launched a $1.5 billion coupon program that will issue $40 vouchers toward the purchase of converter boxes needed to keep analog sets using rabbit ears operational after the changeover.
Through Jan. 17, nearly 3.8 million coupons had been requested, with a maximum 33 million to be issued. The agency will start mailing vouchers Feb. 17 and expects the devices to hit store shelves in late February to early March, though some major retailers have said they will stock the units closer to April.
Next month, NAB will release a television ad promoting the coupons and give stations a 30-minute magazine-style show about the transition, spokeswoman Shermaze Ingram said.
Despite the efforts, many in Congress are worried that some Americans will not learn about the vouchers or won't be able to locate converter boxes, particularly in rural areas.
"Right now, I am not confident that government agencies, retailers, broadcasters and all other stakeholders are taking all the steps necessary to ensure consumers are adequately informed and ready for this transition," House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., warned in a statement about his panel's Feb. 13 hearing.