Ed Markey (D-MA) hosted leadership from the FCC, NTIA and GAO to assess the DTV transition, which is a done deal in Wilmington NC but is just over 150 days away for the rest of the nation. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin detailed some of the lessons of Wilmington. Martin noted that of the consumer calls that came in, 80% were easily resolved. As expected, about 1% of all households lost service due to the “digital cliff,” or the tendency for digital signals to be rendered useless precipitously, rather than experiencing the fade-away effect common to analog broadcasts. Some of these consumers will need better antennae; and some who lost access to a network affiliate may have an alternate option from a neighboring market. In the Wilmington test, such was the case for consumers between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach SC to the south and Raleigh-Durham to the north.
The network carriage most affected was NBC, and only a small minority of viewers lost it and was without an accessible replacement channel. Martin noted that the beneficial message broadcast in analog instructing viewers who lost service where to go for help will not be a factor in February, unless Congress passes legislation allowing television stations to keep their analog signals on the air past the deadline. He also said that he favored a quiet period for retransmission negotiations. The NAB has offered such a period for the two weeks before and after 2/17/09; Martin said he was thinking three weeks and has an item before the other commissioners up for consideration. NTIA’s Meredith Atwell-Baker was tasked by Markey to come up with a plan to handle anticipated increased demand for converter box coupons as the deadline approaches. She also suggested that it maybe easier for customers with elapsed coupons to find a friend or relative to acquire one and transfer it to them than it would be to change the rule banning reissues at this point.
Kevin Martin, FCC: Praises Copps for pushing hard for test market. 80% of calls to FCC were easily resolved. Wilmington NBC affiliate is no longer available all the way down to Myrtle Beach, or up to Raleigh. Most of those losing the station have other NBC options, but not all do. A few consumers need a new antenna due to “digital cliff” effect. Less than 1% of US viewers are expected to be in this group, and Wilmington experience bears that out. Few “cliff”problems with stations whose DTV pattern replicates the analog. Chairman Martin’s full testimony:
Meredith Atwell-Baker, NTIA: Coupons is top NTIA priority. 27M coupons, 14M households. Up to 111K per day recently. 10M have been redeemed, 49% of all put out there. 156 certified boxes, xx with analog passthrough. Estimated 70% of over-air households have requested coupons. Consumer advice is: Apply, buy and try. Needs flexibility to increase administrative spending to handle anticipated increase in requests.
Mark Goldstein, GAO: $1.4B has been committed by associations/stakeholders [CHECK]. NTIA has effectively addressed coupon program, but plans going ahead are unclear. Up to 35% of US houses could be affected, if secondary TVs are factored in. Spike in demand is likely, and late increase could delay processing. No specific plans are in place to deal with this potential problem. Should be a big increase in request in Q1 2009. It’s ability to handle more volume remains questionable.