Martin Now Sees Trouble Ahead, Points to NTIA

The message from FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has been that the DTV transition is headed for success. After the Wilmington, N.C., analog shutoff, the FCC bragged that only 0.5 percent of all viewers called in to a government help line after the shutoff, as other observers saw that number as foreboding of trouble ahead.

In a letter to a key House panel, Martin says the National Telecommunications Administration had got some problems with its DTV converter-box coupon program. Martin said in a letter to Rep. Ed Markey, chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, that NTIA underestimated the number of over-the-air-dependent households in Wilmington; underestimated the percentage of those households that would request coupons; and is now under-predicting coupons redemption rates.

The number of self-certified over-the-air-dependent households in Wilmington (more than 19,000 requested coupons) was 39 percent higher than what NTIA estimated using Nielsen data (13,759 households, of which 8,255 would request coupons.) More than twice as many coupons were requested as predicted by NTIA.

"If we extrapolate nationally, instead of the 8.4 million OTA households that NTIA expects (60% of 14 million total OTA households) will order coupons, we could see up to 19.3 million OTA households requesting coupons," Martin wrote.

"While I do not have access to all of NTIA's projections and detailed analyses, I am concerned that the total funding required to satisfy consumer demand may prove to be insufficient," Martin wrote. "If what happened with respect to the early switchover to digital in Wilmington is indicative of what we experience nationwide, then the demand for coupons may be greater than expected."

NTIA has said it would not request more funding from Congress, but it did receive authority last month to redirect to the coupons some funds previously allocated elsewhere.