Local News

FCC chairman wants DTV transition to proceed as planned

Posted January 14, 2009 4:03 a.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was in North Carolina Wednesday as part of a promotion of next month's scheduled change to digital television signals.

Chairman Kevin Martin held a town hall meeting at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh to discuss the change scheduled for Feb. 17.

Martin and other members of the commission are visiting TV markets where more than 100,000 households rely only on analog, over-the-air signals. They are trying to get out the message about the scheduled switch so those viewers can be prepared.

Older televisions will no longer receive a signal after Feb. 17 if they depend on antennas. Viewers will need to subscribe to a cable or satellite service, purchase a new, digital-ready TV or install a converter box to keep watching television.

“We’re still trying to get [the] message out to targeted communities,” Martin said. “We’ve had lots of soft tests.”

The transition has been planned for more than a year. The Obama administration and others want a delay, saying many people aren’t ready. Martin puts the likelihood of a delay at 50 percent.

“I think any kind of delay is going to confuse consumers,” he said.

Martin said viewers to whom he speaks are aware of the transition date, but don’t believe it will actually happen. Based on what was learned from complaints when the Wilmington market transitioned last September, Martin believes a delay would just create more procrastination.

“I think that’s the kind of problem that could be highlighted by us telling everyone Feb. 17 for a year and then, at the last minute, saying, ‘No, we don't mean that,’” he said.

Proponents of a delay point out that the Commerce Department’s converter-box coupon program ran out of money, meaning many people who want to buy a converter are forced to wait or to pay the full cost.

More than a million people are now on a waiting list for coupons. Martin believes Congress just needs to take quick action to move coupons through the mail faster and to extend expiration dates for existing coupons.

“One of the biggest complaints I hear when I’m traveling is that people apply for the coupon and they either didn’t get it or they got it and it was late and the expiration date had come and gone … and they can’t apply for another one,” he said.

The transition has implications for broadcasters and retailers, too. WRAL-TV and other stations have added new antennas to their towers. Electronics stores such as Radio Shack are selling converter boxes and household antennas.

Martin said he thinks the benefits of the switch may be getting lost in the controversy over coupons and converter boxes. When it happens, viewers will get a better picture, better sound and more programming because many stations, including WRAL, send out multiple signals.