Congress unhappy with lack of antenna knowledge for DTV transition

The government has always approached the DTV transition with caution, but now as the analog shutoff nears, nerves are becoming frayed. Members are worried that millions of viewers are going to lose free television service without the installation of good rooftop antennas.

Reps. John Dingell, D-MI, and Ed Markey, D-MA, key leaders of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Internet, have joined about a dozen other committee members to warn broadcasters, the FCC and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) about the importance of antennas. Their education campaigns, the members said, need to warn viewers of the need to upgrade or install new antennas to pick up TV signals.

“The commission has failed to provide the American public with adequate information concerning the need for new antennas and/or antenna adjustments to receive digital broadcast signals,” the members of Congress wrote, noting that a significant number of viewers may have reception problems.

Barry Goodstadt, senior vice president of Centris, a market research firm that first warned of the antenna problem, said the antenna message should have been in the DTV education effort in the beginning. “They should have let people know that buying a converter box was not the full story,” Goodstadt said. “The full story was that you had to make sure that your antenna worked adequately.”

The NAB is also concerned about antennas. Shermaze Ingram, spokeswoman for the NAB’s DTV education effort, said she didn’t know if antenna education was something that the trade association deliberately waited to do. “It may not have been a message that would have been as easily digestible to consumers six months ago,” she said. Now, however, the NAB is offering public service messages focused on solving antenna issues.

The NTIA’s acting chief, Meredith Attwell Baker, was asked by reporters why there is no warning on DTV converter boxes that even if users do everything right, they could still lose TV signals due to the change in signal contours of stations. Baker didn’t answer, instead deferring to the FCC on antenna and reception issues.

Wilmington revealed two problems with antenna reception. First, viewers on the edge of TV reception areas will probably not get signals. And, second, viewers who once got a signal may no longer receive one due to changes in the signal contours. Goodstadt noted that even if viewers are within a television reception area, it is a good chance they will still need a rooftop antenna.

On the set-top box subsidy, FCC chairman Kevin Martin has now warned that the $1.5 billion converter box coupon program may well run out of money before the deadline. He joined Baker, who admitted the problem earlier to members of Congress.

Martin suggested the NTIA could have underestimated the number of coupons it will need, using Nielsen data estimating there were 13.7 thousand over-the-air-only households in Wilmington, NC.

In fact, there were 19.1 thousand requests from Wilmington houses that identified themselves as over-the-air-only. If that is extrapolated to the rest of the United States, Martin said there could be 5 million more over-the-air households than previously expected. Others said that number is being underestimated.