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House Panel Hears Wilmington Lessons

The House Subcommittee on the Telecommunications and the Internet held its sixth hearing this Congress on the DTV transition Tuesday, and remained in disagreement on how to interpret some lessons of the early analog shutoff in Wilmington, N.C.

Rep. Cliff Stearns of Florida, the top Republican on the panel, looked to FCC numbers stating that 0.5 percent (1,200) of the community had called an FCC hotline in the first two days of the experiment. (That number rose to 1,800 by the end of the first week of the shutoff, with hundreds more to broadcasters and other call centers.)

Others, like Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), looked at the same numbers and warned of a potential flood of problems come February 2009.

Some lawmakers picked at the remaining, ever-shrinking cracks in the program of $40 government coupons. One wondered why the National Telecommunications and Information Administration had no backup for Americans whose coupons were lost or stolen.

But on a more practical level, the lawmakers heard that the DTV educational efforts needed to address issues of box installation and antenna performance.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who previously has estimated that 5 percent of over-the-air viewers will have some antenna issues, this time used a different metric, saying that new coverage patterns mean that 15 percent of markets would have cases where at least one channel is lost to some viewers.

NTIA boss Meredith Attwell Baker said the message needs to turn to "Apply, buy and try," so people actually install their boxes and scan for stations.

Mark L. Goldstein, director of Physical Infrastructure Issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said the NTIA had no plan to handle an expected surge as the transition date approaches. Baker said such a plan was in her legislative request; panel Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) asked her to come up with more details.

Connie Ledoux Book, associate professor of communications at Elon University in Elon, N.C., has been studying the transition. She said broadcasters need to increase the urgency and specificity of their messages. Instead of running simulated shutoff during the 6 p.m. news, run them during the most popular programs—even the Super Bowl, she said in an interview after the hearing.

She also said more information is needed at the retail outlets that sell the boxes. Broadcasters, with the most to gain and lose from the process, ought to measure signal strength neighborhood by neighborhood, assess solutions (such as improved antennas) for viewers, and make that information available at retail outlets.

The issue of lost stations was made vivid by the transition of WECT, the Wilmington NBC affiliate, which changed transmitter locations with its DTV transition, losing some out-of-market viewers.

"The assumption has always been if it worked in the analog, it would just be a fluid kind of transition," Book said. Some government documents, such as those showing rabbit-ears antennas, may mislead people into thinking that's all they'll need, she said.

As for the slate of information analog viewers saw during the Wilmington switch, Book has a better idea than a slate with a government hotline. Why not instead show a loop about the transition and the boxes, including installation? And maybe even use local news personalities. Most people would prefer to help themselves rather than call a government phone number, she said.

"Were just not thinking through how were using TV when an analog signal is still available," she said.

The Senate will get another crack at the Wilmington example Tuesday (Sept. 23) when the full Senate Commerce Committee holds a hearing. Martin, Baker and Goldstein are all scheduled to testify, as are Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo and Josefina Carbonell, the assistant secretary in charge of the U.S. Administration on Aging in the Department of Health and Human Services.