Groups Call for Greater Gov't DTV Transition Effort

The U.S. government isn't doing enough to warn television users of the change from analog to digital TV broadcasts starting in February 2009, a coalition of civil rights groups said Monday.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), made up of more than 200 advocacy groups, called on Congress to provide more money for education efforts about the transition to digital TV, or DTV. Although a handful of groups have launched education programs aimed at views of analog over-the-air television, there's a "lack of coordination" in the education campaigns, said Nancy Zirkin, LCCR's executive vice president.

On Feb. 17, 2009, U.S. TV stations are scheduled to switch from broadcasting in analog to digital, with the analog spectrum freed up for wireless voice and broadband services. People who view TV on over-the-air broadcasts will need to buy a converter box to continue to receive signals. Cable TV subscribers won't be affected by the transition.

The spectrum to be abandoned by TV stations was sold by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in an auction that ended in March and raised more than US$19 billion [b].

The U.S. government has estimated that 21 million U.S. households receive over-the-air TV signals, but some groups have suggested the figure may be much higher. Many of those people affected by the DTV transition will be minorities, non-English speakers, the elderly and the poor, Zirkin said.

Congress has approved a program that would give $40 coupons to cover the cost of digital converter boxes, and the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association have teamed up on a campaign to educate consumers about the transition, and other companies and groups, including LCCR and the FCC, have joined the two trade groups in the DTV Transition Coalition's education effort.

But the responsibility for ensuring the transition goes smoothly is with Congress, Zirkin said. "That's where the buck's going to stop," she said. "Sooner or later, Congress is going to wake up to the fact -- if we're right, and I hope we're not -- that a lot of people are in the dark, and they're going to have to fix it."

LCCR officials predicted that lawmakers could get thousands of calls from angry constituents who can no longer receive TV signals after the transition.

People will need help installing the converter boxes or getting text captioning to work on them, added Mark Lloyd, a former broadcaster who's now LCCR's vice president for strategic initiatives. A $5 million education program approved by Congress doesn't include hands-on help in those areas, he said.

"There is absence of clear federal leadership and a comprehensive transition plan to address the needs of those most vulnerable to the transition," he said.

Campaigns for the U.S. Senate in a single state can cost more than the $5 million Congress has allocated for the DTV education program, Zirkin added.

On Monday LCCR released a report on the DTV transition. The report calls for changes in the $990 million converter-box coupon program, including an end to the coupons expiring after 90 days. The report also called on the U.S. government to create "rapid response" teams to assist communities with the transition.

"It is time to honestly acknowledge that many Americans will turn on their analog televisions on February 18, 2009 and be in the dark,'" the report says. "There is simply too much confusion in the marketplace, too many people to transition, too many potential challenges and problems in making the transition, and too few resources dedicated to the task to assert otherwise."

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