Congress Questions FCC’s Digital TV Plan

Published September 1, 2007

Congressional Democrats have put the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on the defensive after questioning whether the regulator is doing enough to educate consumers on the federally mandated national transition to digital television (DTV) slated for early 2009.

In 2006 Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill essentially backed the two-year effort that led to a legislative compromise on the February 19, 2009 date for a full transition. The various efforts are already slated to cost nearly a billion dollars, and Democrats are suggesting even more is needed.

Analog TV Ends

The so-called education efforts letting the public know analog-only, over-the-air TV receivers will be virtually useless by early 2009 have been a sticking point for U.S. lawmakers all along the lengthy legislative process. The crux of the matter is whether buyers understand the implications of choosing DTV-only, traditional analog-only, or analog-with-optional-DTV-conversion sets off retail shelves.

Concerns over this education aspect of the DTV transition–in addition to the consumer expense of this forced obsolescence–were brought back to life by key Democrat members of the Committee on Energy and Commerce at the House of Representatives in the form of a May 24 congressional letter to all five FCC members seeking a battle plan for educating the American public.

“The present lack of leadership, direction, and focus at the federal level is jeopardizing the transition,” the letter said.

The language was crafted by committee chairman Rep. John D. Dingell (D-MI) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), chairman of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet.

Dingell and Markey were the ranking minority members at the time of the DTV bill’s passage and had repeatedly expressed reservations about the public education effort as well as the $990 million coupon program to be managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which essentially will subsidize a limited number of set-top DTV converter boxes for users of analog-only, over-the-air TV receivers.

Martin Responds

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin responded June 18, detailing the steps the FCC, NTIA, the consumer electronics industry, retailers, broadcasters, and other parties are taking and can take to keep Americans posted.

These include, among other things, a prime FCC Web site position, “warning label” mandates to vendors and retailers, tuner requirements for TV manufacturers, broadcaster obligations, periodic industry workshops, a growing media campaign, formal progress review proceedings, and outreach programs. Consumers will also receive two $40 vouchers that can be applied to the purchase of two DTV converters, which are expected to cost between $80 and $100. Consumers will not be allowed to combine the vouchers to purchase one converter.

To support trade and consumer communications and education about the DTV change, the FCC has turned to the High Tech DTV Coalition (whose members include IBM, Microsoft, and Intel), the Consumer Electronics Association, and two recently re-chartered voluntary FCC groups: the Consumer Advisory Committee and the Intergovernmental Advisory Committee.

The core factor involves money, specifically how much is really needed to inform the public. Dingell and Markey suggest the FCC has no comprehensive plan for consumer education and that its new request for an additional $1.5 million from Congress to educate 300 million Americans is anemic.

Martin has complained the FCC previously had requested but never received $500,000 in allocations for DTV consumer education for two years in a row.

$100 Million Not Enough?

The congressional Q&A over FCC leadership and funding is additionally complicated by the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which embraced the DTV legislative language and seemed to hand much of the DTV work to NTIA, which was given $5 million earmarked for DTV public education within the total $100 million budget for administering the main $990 million voucher coupon program.

Many Democrats, including Dingell and Markey, in the past had advocated far larger education and voucher coupon program allocations. But sources at their offices suggest the issue is unlikely to see any new legislative initiatives soon because of the complexity of revamping the various funding aspects of the DTV transition.

There are also public safety communications grants and rules on spectrum auction proceeds involved in the existing legislation.

“Thus, Congress explicitly gave NTIA the responsibility for both the coupon box program as well as consumer education about the digital transition generally,” Martin replied to Dingell and Markey. “I respect Congress’s decision in this matter.”

Frank Barbetta ([email protected]) writes from Little Falls, New Jersey.