Adelstein With a Hammer

FCC commissioner riffs on the federal governments watery DTV education efforts in his keynote at the Dec. 3 Government Video Expo, issuing a plea for help… 

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein delivered the keynote address at the Government Video Technology Expo Dec. 3, noting that in 76 days, analog broadcast television would go away. Adelstein asked those in attendance to become volunteer DTV educators, because, as he says, the government has “no strategic plan” to do so. An excerpt of his speech follows:

“….With most major TV stations ceasing to broadcast in analog all at once on the same day, it’s a huge challenge. Unfortunately, the FCC’s management of the DTV transition continues to underestimate the task.

“I testified over a year ago before the Senate Commerce Committee that the Governmental Accountability Office has found that no agency was in charge of the transition, and there was no strategic plan. Here we are, with a precious year passed, and there is still no established structure or strategic plan.

“Nobody is ultimately responsible for vetting, prioritizing and implementing ideas from both the public and private sectors into a comprehensive and coherent course of action.

“We’re sending out weak signals, so the public isn’t getting a clear picture.

“Because we’ve failed to plan, we’ve been playing catch-up. Rather than being proactive--anticipating problems and concerns, and developing an effective strategy--we’ve been reactive.

“For instance, we’ve always known that there would be some loss of signal coverage in certain areas due to unavoidable engineering changes or environmental and zoning issues. As the commission has recognized, a portion of the existing analog service areas of some full-power stations will no longer be able to receive service after the station transitions to digital. But the commission has only recently started to address this very real concern.

“The distributed transmission system technology item, which authorized the use of synchronized, same channel translators to provide service to loss areas or to populations in area with difficult terrains, was released a few weeks ago--although the Notice Proposed Rulemaking was pending for more than three years. And only recently did we begin to consider the creation of a DTV translator service to replace the loss of analog service. Yet still, the FCC hasn’t acted in any meaningful way to look into providing a lifeline or nightlight analog service to viewers who are left behind in the transition.

“While the Senate has passed the Capps/Rockefeller DTV nightlight legislation, the Short-Term Analog Flash and Emergency Readiness Act, and the House of Representatives is likely to consider it next week, the commission needs to begin looking on a market-by-market basis to determine need and availability.

As many of you may know, the beach resort community of Wilmington became the ‘first in flight’ to cut off analog TV broadcasting and go digital in September. The common wisdom is that everything went ‘smoothly,’ with a few glitches. The reality is that a minor turbulence in one small town, magnified nationwide, portends a transition not ready to fly.

“In the months before this test, the FCC probably spent more resources in Wilmington than in the rest of the country combined. For months, at least five high-ranking staffers were on the ground in every county, at every blueberry festival. We even paid firefighters to go into homes to help those who needed it. If today we shut down the FCC and sent every employee across the country, it wouldn’t touch the impact we had in Wilmington. And yet, even after all of that, we got thousands of calls.

“Yet there’s no plan remotely comparable to reach out nationwide. In San Francisco Bay market, for example, there are over 6 million households, mountainous terrain, ongoing tower construction issues and a diverse population with non-English speaking immigrants. The commission’s main outreach effort in the Bay Area to date has amounted to my two-day visit a couple of months ago.

“Awareness of the transition was 97 percent in Wilmington. Even so, there were problems with converter boxes, antennas, the loss of TV signals and more.

“We urgently need to take an active role in working with all of you, and with broadcasters, cable and satellite TV operators, and yes, community organizers to put ourselves in a position to respond to the problems we know are coming.

“To begin, we need to conduct more simulated, field analog tests. These efforts, which involve a temporary analog cut off or roadblock for 30 seconds to five minutes, help to educate viewers, manage their expectations, and identify potential problems before the whole country takes the plunge.

“It is important to recognize that the commission cannot do this alone. In the remaining months before the transition, we need to develop and execute a coordinated nationwide grassroots effort to bring crucial information and assistance to Americans who need it most.

“First, like the GOTV effort for a presidential campaign, we need to assemble and train teams of DTV assistance workers to go into every market, city and town in the U.S. to ensure that every community get a baseline level of organizational and resource support. This effort needs to be federal government-wide, and then we also need to work with state and local governments to develop statewide or communitywide DTV teams. These teams need to have clear goals, objectives and performance measures.

“Second, we need to facilitate a viral campaign in coordination with congressional and governmental offices and community organizations to encourage tech savvy individuals to assist family members, friends, and neighbors with converter box installation.

“Third, we need to encourage elected officials, from governors to mayors and beyond, to get involved in making this happen on the ground. As part of this effort, they can cut public service announcements that focus on preparedness.

Fourth, as I have been recommending since early summer, we need to increase our phone bank capacity to handle 2 million phone calls in the days immediately following Feb. 17.

“Currently, there are about 50 FCC employees and 50 full-time contractors working the phone bank in D.C. and in Gettysburg, Pa. In the beginning of December, an additional 35 contractors will be added. We may need to allocate $5 million to $6 million to fund the expansion of these call centers. And while we appreciate the hard work of the National Telecommunications and Information Association and its management of the coupon program, I believe the FCC and the NTIA should pool their resources to streamline the process.

“For instance, NTIA and FCC each have their own call center. By merging these valuable services, as I suggested we do over a year ago, we can avoid consumer confusion and provide direct answers and technical assistance.

“Fifth, we need to move much faster to finalize grants to community organizations and event planners to assist with the transition effort.

“Sixth, we should ask our telco, cable and satellite partners to get involved on a local level. We should ask them to assist with local phone banks and help people to install converter boxes and new antennas in homes.

“These are just some of the steps we need to take. They will be challenging to implement in the next 76 days, but they will accomplish a great deal if they are implemented.

“You know that this transition is about much more than broadcasting. It is about ensuring that everyone can get emergency news and information, that we improve our national broadband standing, and that state and local first responders have access to an interoperable, wireless public safety communications network to save lives.”