April 13th, 2008 10:43 EST
The straight scoop about TV digital conversion
In just 10 months, television viewers in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and other major metro areas may find reliable television reception to be a thing of the past.
A new report warns that when analog television channels are shut down on February 17, 2009, more than 9 million of the 17 million homes that still rely on over-the-air broadcast signals will encounter spotty service and few channels to select from.
The report, conducted by market research firm Centris, surveyed homes that receive only over-the-air signals and are not subscribed to any cable or satellite service. Of those homes, 54 percent were located in "challenging reception areas," defined as having small rooftop or indoor "rabbit ear" television antennae. Distance transmission towers and local terrain were also factored in.
Centris claimed that 24 percent of consumers in those areas who have insufficient antennae will receive few or no channels, even if they purchase a digital signal set-top converter box, thus requiring them to buy more advanced antennae as well.
"We have completed an analysis of the entire country to identify where in each market the receptivity gaps exist and now have exact figures for the number of at-risk households down to individual census block groups," said Centris' executive vice-president David Klein.
"The statistics suggest that digital TV signal coverage will be significantly more limited than currently anticipated and further reinforce the need for industry and consumer education on this issue."
Centris also identified what it called the most "at-risk markets" for problems with the digital television transition, with New York and Boston topping the list.
Rounding out the top ten were Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Seattle-Tacoma, the San Francisco Bay Area, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Atlanta, and Cleveland-Akron, Ohio.
The Centris study comes two months after a study conducted by Consumers' Union that found that as many as 23 million households, or 11 percent of the country's population, may have limited service or lose service together after the switchover.
That study found that Western and Midwest states would be the hardest hit by the transition, and that elderly, low-income, and Latino households would be the largest population segments affected.
Covering the bases
The two government agencies most directly in charge of the transition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), have been scrambling to educate the public in the wake of findings that Americans are still underinformed about the transition and what they have to do in order to receive television service.
The FCC has also begun levying punishments on electronics retailers that have been taking advantage of the confusion to sell consumers televisions and equipment that do not actually provide digital service.
On April 10, the FCC published enforcement orders against numerous big-box retailers such as Best Buy, Circuit City, Sears, and Wal-Mart, for selling televisions that were not clearly labeled as requiring a set-top converter box to receive digital signals, with orders to forfeit profits of up to $6 million.
"Based on the evidence before us, we find that Circuit City apparently willfully and repeatedly violated [government regulations by] failing to display conspicuously and in close proximity to equipment with an analog-only tuner, in clear and conspicuous print, the required Consumer Alert label," said the Circuit City citation. The forfeiture notice will cost the retailer $712,000.
Both agencies have also been heavily publicizing the government's voucher program that enables consumers to download or order free $40 coupons to go towards the cost of purchasing a new set-top converter box. Commerce Secretary Carlos Guiterrez, whose agency oversees the NTIA, recently announced that 10 million coupons had been requested by consumers to purchase converter boxes.
But members of Congress and many consumer rights groups continue to express concern that the FCC and NTIA are not adequately educating consumers about critical aspects of the digital television transition, such as the fact that the converter box coupons will expire three months after they are issued, with no option to replace them or issue more.
At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing held on April 8 to discuss the transition, FCC chair Kevin Martin and acting NTIA head Meredith Baker were grilled on their plans to educate consumers and push for more dissemination of information relating to the transfer.
Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D-HI) said that "too many Americans remain in the dark about what the digital television transition (DTV) means."
"I have deep reservations about the FCC spending its limited time and resources in media areas unrelated to the transition," Inouye said. "Meanwhile, the NTIA is challenged by the Administration's push for a third leadership change at the agency within the past year. I urge both agencies to keep an eye on what is most pressing, and to proceed cautiously when you choose to spend time on what is not."
Vice-chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) echoed Inouye's concerns, saying that the FCC was wasting too much time on preferred issues of Martin's such as "a la carte" cable packages.
"The digital transition must be the FCC's number one priority this year. No other issue before the FCC has the same critical countdown as this transition," Stevens said. "It is crucial that government officials, industry, and consumer advocacy groups increase their outreach efforts to senior citizens and rural Americans."
Inouye requested that both agencies begin making monthly reports to the Commerce Committee in order to assess the status of the transition and ongoing related issues.
What to do
The following sites have more information about the analog-to-digital transition:
• Our Dawn Carlson provides a thorough overview of what you need to know.
• Visit the FCC's official DTV site to get more information.
• Apply for a converter box coupon at the NTIA's converter program Web site.