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Congress reviews Wilmington test before industry conversion

With Wilmington’s analog TV shutdown behind it, the FCC now knows it has to do more than simply tell viewers about the transition. There’s the situation involving better antennas, reception glitches, failure to understand the operation of converter boxes, and finding a way to make the converters available in adequate numbers.

And, as FCC chairman Kevin Martin noted, about 15 percent of TV stations with digital TV signals won’t reach as many viewers as did their analog signals. That lesson hit home in Wilmington when many viewers in nearby communities lost the signal to WECT-TV, the NBC affiliate.

The FCC does not want viewers to lose stations they have been watching, Martin told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. He said FCC engineers are working on a “fix,” which might involve antennas.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-MA, the subcommittee chairman, suggested that a resolution to the issue come “very soon,” so people in affected areas can at least be warned.

Martin said experiences in Wilmington also revealed that users had trouble rescanning their converter boxes. As a result, he said the FCC has distributed PSA announcements and long-form videos to television stations to help viewers with these problems. He also promised the FCC will refine its education message to better address these matters.

On the issue of low-cost DTV converter boxes, Martin noted than none of the major national retailers are carrying low-cost converter boxes like EchoStar’s $40 box. Such a box would be essentially be free with the government’s $40 coupon.

Martin complained in a letter to Christopher McLean, executive director of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition. He said the FCC determined that “none” of the major retail outlets was carrying or planning to carry the EchoStar box or one of a similar price. The EchoStar box is available online, but at a shipping cost of $10 to $12.

Martin requested that CERC ask members like Wal-Mart, Sears, Best Buy, Circuit City and RadioShack to stock at least one make of $40 converter box in their stores.

McLean told Congress that all of his members were aware of Martin’s request, but he made no commitments. Markey instructed McLean to keep the committee informed about which of his retailer members were going to carry the low-cost boxes in their stores and analog pass-through boxes to those who needed them.

Democrats on the subcommittee are also worried that the government will run out of money for the converters. If viewers are unable to watch television over the air, the fear is they will subscribe to satellite or digital cable.

“The government can do a lot of things, but you mess up people’s televisions, and they’re going to be very upset. It’s going to be a real mess when it rolls out in the real world,” noted Rep. Heather A. Wilson, R-NM, a member of the subcommittee.