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Report faults DTV strategy

FCC, NTIA need a plan of action for switch

No one is ultimately taking responsibility for the federally mandated switch to all-digital television by early 2009, and that’s a serious problem, a new government report claims.

While acknowledging that the two government entities most involved in the transition — the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — have been working steadily on the massive undertaking, Government Accountability Office investigators reported that they “found no comprehensive plan or strategy to measure progress or results.”

“Such planning,” the investigators said, “includes managing and mitigating risks, which can help organizations identify potential problems before they occur and target limited resources.”

Report recommended that the FCC and NTIA develop an overall plan involving all public and private stakeholders in the transition.

“Without a comprehensive plan that also addresses managing risks and mitigating against potential problems, tens of millions of consumers could be adversely affected and this important transition put needlessly in jeopardy,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) in a statement. He released the report on Tuesday.

“Given the high stakes for consumers, public safety and wireless innovation posed by this transition, the GAO’s call for the FCC and NTIA to develop an overarching strategic framework for success is one that these agencies would do well to heed,” Markey added.

House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) said he was “deeply disturbed” by the report but added that his concern extended beyond the FCC and NTIA.

“I believe the amount of preparation at all levels of government and industry to address the change and its consequences is hopelessly inadequate,” Dingell said in a statement. “The DTV transition will be successful only if all aspects of government are working together. If this does not happen, it will be the American people — particularly the elderly and poor — who will suffer a when their (analog) televisions stop functioning on Feb. 19, 2009.”

In a conference all with reporters on Tuesday, acting NTIA chief Meredith Baker said her agency and the FCC were regularly consulting about the transition and that NTIA itself is “making major progress” on preparing for the transition.

Congress tasked NTIA with developing a subsidy program that would help consumers who have over-the-air-dependent analog TV sets (TVs hooked to cable or satellite will not be affected) buy a converter box, which will convert digital signals back to analog. NTIA is organizing a nationwide giveaway of $40 coupons that consumers can use to help pay for the boxes, estimated to cost $60-$70.

Baker said that as many as 26 million TV sets will need converter boxes, and the program has enough funding for 33.5 million coupons, which consumers can apply for starting Jan. 1, and which will be ready to distribute about six weeks later.

Democratic FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein welcomed the GAO report, declaring in a statement that the watchdog agency “confirms what I’ve been saying for well over a year. The FCC does not have a strategic plan for the DTV transition. There is not even a plan to come up with a plan. Only the FCC appears to be in a state of denial over what the GAO is telling us.”

But FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin vigorously disputed the GAO findings about a lack of preparedness, noting that the commission had told GAO investigators that “the FCC has been planning for the DTV transition for more than 20 years. Indeed, as we further explained, many of the DTV deadlines and milestones that Congress established were built around the FCC’s own timeline for implementing multiple aspects of the transition.”

Martin sent almost 100 single-spaced pages to GAO detailing FCC accomplishments on the transition.

However, the GAO said the lengthy document “neither meets the requirements for a strategic plan, nor is it sufficiently transparent to guide stakeholders to meeting the DTV goals or in serving as a road map to facilitate effective collaboration between the various stakeholders to ensure the intent of the DTV transition.”

Some stakeholders, such as the National Assn. of Broadcasters, have argued that instead of one overarching campaign –or authority — for all markets, DTV transition campaigns should be tailored for each market.

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