Upcoming transition sparks issues at CES

LAS VEGAS — Government and industry representatives are divided over whether the nationwide transition to all-digital television will go as easily as the flick of a switch or cause a sparking explosion.

Most speakers on two separate panels at the Consumer Electronics Show expressed optimism about the pending move, skedded for February 2009, but at least two senior congressional experts and a consultant for a large private organization cautioned against potentially big problems.

During an afternoon panel, reps from the Federal Communications Commission, the National Assn. of Broadcasters and the National Technology Information Administration said that high initial demand for converter box coupons indicated that the public is becoming aware of the digital switch.

After February 18, 2009, broadcasters will only transmit digital signals. Viewers with analog TVs dependent on over-the-air transmission will need a digital-to-analog converter box so that the sets will continue to function. Households with analog sets hooked to cable or satellite or with digital sets are not at risk.

NTIA (part of the Commerce Dept.) has estimated just under 30 million converter boxes will be needed. To help defray costs of the boxes — expected to run $50 to $70 — the government is providing two coupons worth $40 to every household. NTIA, the FCC, NAB and the cable industry have been, to different degrees, trying to get word out about the coming transition.

But at an earlier panel of congressional staffers working on the transition, two speakers — Amy Levine of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Jennifer Schneider, legislative counsel to Rep. Rich Boucher (D-Va.) — voiced concerns about potentially serious glitches.

Levine, noting that the converter box coupons are only good for 90 days after issue, said that consumers who don’t use coupons within that time frame could undermine success of the entire transition.

Schneider worried that the $100 million the government has allotted for consumer education about the transition won’t be enough. “We clearly have some issues with consumer education, and we need a comprehensive consumer education plan.”

Both Levine and Schneider agreed that an overall coordinating authority or task force — such as the one that existed for Y2K — is needed to ensure a smooth transition.

Neil Fried, also on the House Energy and Commerce staff, disagreed, saying a “DTV czar” was not necessary.

Among the panelists speaking in the afternoon, only Debra Berlyn, a consultant for the American Assn. for Retired People, concurred with Levine and Schneider. Berlyn said the AARP is trying to make sure that elderly people, particularly those in rural areas, are not left behind as a result of the transition.

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