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Copps Touts DTV Consumer Assistance Efforts

The end of analog television June 12 will not be seamless, Acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps told Congress Thursday.

But Copps has plans for boots on the ground—literally. The FCC is working on a deal with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, enlisting professionals from fire departments around the country to help people with DTV converter box installation.

The update came at a hearing of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, the first such hearing in the 111th Congress and the first under the gavel of Chairman Rick Boucher, D-Va.

Copps said he’s taken steps to improve outreach to the DTV latecomers, and that the FCC has five contract officers and 42 other technical staff just to handle the bid and contracting process for FCC call centers, walk-in centers, installation assistance and media support.

For example, Friday the FCC announced a partnership with AmeriCorps, to get young volunteers on the converter box mission.

But hitches remain. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has reported that it has cleared the waiting list for coupons, switched to first-class mail and changed its guidelines to let people reapply for coupons to replace expired ones. The agency also received some $650 million in so-called stimulus funds, but not until March 2.

But still the NTIA couldn’t promise that there would be sufficient coupons and boxes to meet demand.

“Could there be a spike in demand in the weeks before June 12?” Boucher asked.

Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro told the committee that inventory is expected to be “robust and sufficient” but warned that each retailer and supplier makes its own decisions.

Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida, the top Republican on the panel, who has consistently downplayed the warnings of a DTV disaster, said delaying the DTV transition date was unnecessary, as was much of the funding for coupons and outreach.

“In this case, the glass is 95 percent full,” he said.

He reminded the panel that Republicans had sought to authorize funds for the coupons instead of delaying the transition.

“It appears we were right, that there was no need to delay,” he said, noting the uptick in prepared viewers even before the stimulus money appears. One-third of stations went ahead and ended analog anyway, he noted, and the FCC received only about 20,000 calls per day around the Feb. 17 partial transition—and many of those callers just needed help installing their boxes.

“The sky did not fall,” Stearns said.

He said the government could still recover about $500 million in unredeemed coupons by the end of the transition if done right.