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FCC Reviews Final DTV Transition Preparations

WASHINGTON: The FCC this week held its final public meeting before the end of analog broadcasting on June 12. The commission heard a parade of testimony regarding preparations for the day. Despite the best of intentions to accommodate last minute stragglers, doubts remain as to the final outcome.

“No one knows for sure what will happen on June 12,” said Acting Chairman Michael Copps. “We’re never going to get this exactly right. You can risk either having too much help for consumers or too little.” But Copps assured that the transition would move forward on June 12, after already being delayed twice. “We have put consumers through enough of a wringer on this transition already,” he said.

Particular attention was focused on efforts to man and fund call centers to handle the anticipated deluge of calls from those consumers who will see snow on their screens on June 13. In addition to $20 million spent by broadcasters and the cable industry to fund call centers, the NTIA received $90 million from the economic stimulus package approved earlier this year for DTV public outreach. On Wednesday, NTIA officials said they have requested an additional $10 million to fund the call centers beyond June 16.

On May 21, broadcasters in more than 125 communities participated in a DTV “soft test” in an effort to estimate consumer response to the analog shutdown. The test resulted in approximately 55,000 calls, nearly four times the daily average since May 1. Just more than half of the calls were inquiries about the converter coupon program, 15 percent had concerns about reception issues and 10 percent needed converter box installation help. FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said the commission is using the information garnered from these calls to target outreach efforts specific markets, including Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas and New York, in the days leading up to June 12.

According to Eloise Gore, associate bureau chief of the FCC’s media bureau, approximately 35 broadcast stations are expected to go dark on June 12--18 because of financial difficulties, and 17 because of construction issues, although some of those stations are expected to resume operations before the end of the year. Approximately half of the 1,800-plus stations have already switched to digital-only operations and the remaining 974 stations will shut down full power analog next Friday.

Julius Knapp, head of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology expressed concerns that consumers are unaware of the types of antennas they will need after June 12. “We cannot underscore enough that most consumers will need an antenna that is designed for both VHF and UHF reception,” he said. “We had previously assumed that most consumers would have a VHF antenna but might not have a UHF antenna.” Knapp also said the commission has “gained insight” in the varying quality of antenna reception and that “in light of this information, we are updating our frequently asked questions and Consumer Information Guide on antennas.”

Knapp also said that the office has updated its maps to provide a snapshot of DTV coverage from facilities that were authorized as of April 30, 2009 and has also created maps showing what coverage will look like after the analog shutdown. “The new maps will be available on our Web site shortly,” he said.

Commissioner Adelstein voiced concerns over the analog “nightlight” program in which broadcasters in certain markets will continue to broadcast their analog signals after June 12 to provide DTV transition information to consumers. According to the Association for Maximum Service Television, broadcasters in 41 of the 49 targeted hot spot markets have volunteered for analog nightlight. Nevertheless, Adelstein urged more participation, pointing to the fact that the hurricane season started on June 1. “An analog nightlight station could be the matter of life and death,” he said.

Adelstein also invoked the weather angle in emphasizing efforts to alert the public about the analog shutdown. Based on the latest numbers from Nielsen, approximately 3.1 million households remain unprepared, which prompted this warning from the commissioner: “We know that June 12 is really the day unprepared and under-prepared households will begin to experience the consequences of their lack of preparation,” he said. “Seeing snow on TV sets across the country--that’s a rare sight in June.” – from TV Technology