DTV switch worries lawmakers

FCC frets over upcoming digital transition

Despite some success in a recent test-market switch to all-digital television signals, lawmakers remain concerned about a possible million-plus viewer complaints flooding stations and the FCC in the initial days after broadcasters flip the switch for good on Feb. 17.

In a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday, chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) said that, unless more is done to ensure a smooth switch, the first three days of the digital transition — Feb. 17-19 — “will be very long indeed.”

“I am deeply concerned that the benefits of the transition may be overshadowed by poor implementation,” Inouye said.

On Sept. 8, the Federal Communications Commission conducted a test in Wilmington, N.C., which agreed to go all digital as a harbinger of what may happen next year. Of the 1,828 people who complained to the FCC in the first five days, slightly more than half were unable to tune in to one or more channels.

If the Wilmington complaint rate is applied nationally, there would be more than 1.1 million calls to the FCC in the first five days after the change.

“Feb. 17 will be the 29th day of the next administration,” Inouye said. “The DTV transition has the potential to cause serious disruption not just to consumers, but to a new president who will just be getting his feet wet. Neither a President Obama nor a President McCain should have to deal with a failed transition so soon after coming into office.”

Those most at risk for disrupted service are the 13.4 million homes, or about 12% of the nation’s 114 million TV households, who don’t subscribe to cable or satellite TV and still get their broadcast signals the old-fashioned way, via antenna. The federal government is providing $40 coupons to help defray the cost of the converter boxes that antenna-dependent TV sets will need to keep functioning after the switch.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin told the Senate committee that the Wilmington test had borne out most of the agency’s expectations — specifically, that despite widespread public awareness of the pending switch, some technical problems would occur, most likely among seniors who may need help hooking up a converter box. But the complaints were relatively minimal, he said.

A majority of complaints involved the inability of some households in remote or rural areas to receive TV stations they once got via analog signals. Martin said this was due largely to the “digital cliff effect,” which causes a DTV receiver to go blank when the signal weakens over great distance. When similarly broadcast over long distances, analog signals degrade the picture, eventually becoming “snowy,” but the image is still viewable.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) was particularly concerned about the digital cliff effect given the topography of her state. Martin said the only solution may be for affected viewers to buy new, bigger antennas.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)