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Unprepared Viewers, Converter Shortages Could Delay Transition

A few years ago, as it became clear the original Dec. 31, 2006, full-power analog shut-off date would have to be extended, it wasn't unusual to hear people say the FCC would never be able to shut down analog TV.

When the Feb. 17, 2009, date was set by Congress and accepted by broadcasters and the consumer electronics industry, even die-hard analog TV supporters conceded the DTV transition would happen.

This week, however, it appears full power analog TV may not be ending so fast.

The first hint something might be going wrong with the planned analog shutdown was an announcement Monday from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that new DTV converter box applicants would be placed on a waiting list until funds from expired coupons became available.

"Households need to consider all of their options and act now to be prepared for the February 17 transition to digital television,” said acting NTIA administrator, Meredith Attwell Baker. “We are working with Congress, the incoming Administration and other stakeholders to ensure everyone is prepared for the transition and no one is left in the dark."

NTIA said that more than 18 million coupons had been redeemed and suggested that consumers call stores before shopping to make sure converter boxes were available.

On Wednesday, the Consumers Union sent letters to members of Congress, President Bush, and President-Elect Obama stating that Congress should consider putting the brakes on the transition to allow "significant flaws" in the converter box coupon program to be addressed and "sufficient local assistance" made ready to help the millions of television viewers who would be affected by the transition.

"With February 17 only 40 days away, we are concerned that millions of at-risk consumers, including rural, low-income and elderly citizens across the country could be left with blank television screens," Consumers Union said. "Consumers have fewer resources than ever to buy the necessary equipment to regain access to essential news, information and emergency broadcasts."

The letter also expressed concerns that the FCC's call center is not equipped to handle the flood of calls before and after the DTV switch but said, "We are confident that with some additional time and expeditious planning the federal government can put a strategy in place to ensure that all these calls will be handled appropriately."

Thursday, President-Elect Obama asked Congress to delay the analog shutdown. John Podesta, co-chairman of Obama's presidential transition team, said in a letter to Congress that major difficulties in preparation for the DTV transition and new questions about the availability of converter box coupons "leads to a conclusion that the Feb. 17 cutoff date for analog signals should be reconsidered and extended."

"With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient, and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date," Podesta said.

As I write this early Friday morning (Jan. 9), it seems to me there is a very good chance that the people that scoffed at the Dec. 31, 2006, analog shutdown date may get some satisfaction in seeing the more widely publicized Feb. 17, 2009, analog shutdown date come and go with full power analog TV stations still on the air.

Legislators are concerned about their constituents losing over the air TV reception. Even though the number of off-air viewers without the ability to receive DTV is likely less than 15 percent of the population—the threshold used by Congress as the threshold when setting the 2006 shutdown date—the Obama letter notes there is insufficient support for low-income, rural and elderly Americans.

While these groups may not be the most desirable demographic for advertisers, I don't see the President-Elect and members of Congress giving that any consideration when deciding to extend full power analog broadcasting past Feb. 17. You might want to start planning for an analog shutdown in June 2009.

Doug Lung is one of America's foremost authorities on broadcast RF technology. He has been with NBC since 1985 and is currently vice president of broadcast technology for NBC/Telemundo stations.