The government so far has done a poor job of educating the public about a 2009 nationwide switch to digital television that could unwittingly leave millions of viewers without programming they currently receive, House lawmakers said Wednesday.
Homeowners with analog TV sets not hooked up to cable or satellite service will be unable to receive digital signals unless they have special converter boxes installed before the switch occurs Feb. 17, 2009.
An estimated 21 million households or about 19 percent of the nation rely on an antenna, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report.
Lawmakers at the House and Telecommunications and the Internet subcommittee said it's critical for the government to oversee the outreach to minority and rural communities, elderly people and others, who are likely to be more affected by the transition than others.
Chairman Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in his opening statement that the current government plan relies heavily on the "good graces of industry and the voluntary efforts of committed consumer and community groups to get the job done."
On Oct. 15, the National Association of Broadcasters began a $697-million public service campaign to educate viewers about the digital transition. All broadcast networks and 95 television broadcasting companies will air public service announcements in English and Spanish aimed at reaching nearly every TV viewer in the nation.
But Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin said in prepared testimony that the agency is devoting significant resources to ensure a smooth transition and has been actively promoting consumer awareness.
In the last several months, he said agency staff have attended 30 conferences sponsored by various advocacy groups, such as the AARP and National Council of La Raza. They have also reached out to various elderly organizations, minority, non-English and rural communities and people with disabilities as well as through various media outlets, he added.
Additionally, he said the agency contacted nearly 125 chambers of commerce and 3,200 small businesses and other groups across the nation to distribute informational materials.
John Kneuer, administrator of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, said a subsidy program for converter boxes that will enable people with TV sets hooked up to an antenna to view digital programming is on schedule.
Under that program which begins Jan. 1 and lasts through March 31, 2009 each household will get two coupons worth $40 each to buy two converter boxes. Congress has committed $1.5 billion for that program, but only earmarked $5 million to advertise it.
He said a contract was awarded to IBM Corp. in August to oversee the consumer education of the program.
"I think $5 million is a drop in the bucket," said Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., echoing the concerns of other lawmakers. "I think we have a ways to go on this."
Mark Goldstein, the GAO's director of physical infrastructure issues, warned the Senate Special Committee on Aging in September that there was a lack of coordination between the FCC and NTIA.
Martin said his agency is working closely with the NTIA
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is also holding a hearing on digital TV at 2:30 p.m. with FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein and Jon Gieselman, a senior vice president with DirecTV Group Inc., scheduled to testify.