DTV transition is 'inadequate'


Congress' investigative arm has chastised federal government efforts to inform consumers that many of the TVs they have used for five decades could become useless junk after broadcasters shut off analog transmissions in 2009.

In a report issued Tuesday faulting the FCC, the Government Accountability Office told Congress that the commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration have failed to develop a comprehensive plan or strategy to measure the transition's progress or results.

The report criticized the agencies' decision to depend on public-private sector initiatives to inform people of the impending demise of analog broadcasts that Congress ordered for Feb. 19, 2009. By order of Congress, analog broadcasts will end, and Americans will have to get their over-the-air TV programming using the new digital system.

While most Americans get their TV from pay services, about 16% still depend on an antenna. Many more U.S. viewers still get their TV off-air for second, third or more sets in their homes.

The NTIA has established a voucher program that would allow Americans to get as many as two $40 vouchers for digital-analog converters.

"It remains unclear whether public-private sector interaction can ensure a consistent message to prevent consumer confusion," the GAO said in a summary accompanying the 49-page report. "NTIA has made progress in implementing a subsidy program for converter boxes, but the program faces challenges."

Congressional critics of the government's action, particularly the FCC, jumped on the report as an indication that the agency is doing too little, too late.

"I am deeply troubled by the report's conclusion that the FCC does not have a comprehensive plan to guide consumers through the digital television transition," said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. "Moreover, I believe the amount of preparation at all levels of government and industry to address the change and its consequences is hopelessly inadequate."

Dingell is chairman of the House Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the FCC.

"The DTV transition will be successful only if all aspects of government are working together," he said. "If this does not happen, it will be the American people — particularly the elderly and poor — who will suffer when their televisions stop functioning on Feb. 19, 2009."

The FCC defended its plan in a response that nearly doubled the number of pages of the GAO report, arguing that the transition has been a two-decades-long effort that shouldn't be viewed in isolation.

"As we explained to the GAO, the FCC has been planning the DTV transition for more than 20 years," the commission wrote. "Indeed, as we further explained, many DTV deadlines and milestones that Congress established were built around the FCC's own timeline for implementing multiple aspects of the transition."

At least one commissioner said the program was woefully short.

"There is not even a plan to come up with a plan," commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said. "Only the FCC appears to be in a state of denial over what the GAO is telling us. Rather than making excuses, we need to come up with solutions. We need to establish an interagency task force now, and we need to reinstate our internal FCC working group immediately."