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More Government Stuff

March 15, 2007

The NTIA's final rules on their digital-to-analog converter box subsidy program were published in the Federal Register today. The document includes a discussion of the comments received after the proposed rule was published and NTIA's analysis of those comments and rationale for reaching the conclusions adopted by the final rule.

Notwithstanding the NTIA's web site statement that coupons would be limited to just one per household during the second funding phase of the coupon program (after the initial $990 million is exhausted), the final regulations contain no such restriction. The two coupon per household limit had be established by Congress; NTIA would not have authority to lower that. A limit of one may have been considered by NTIA and then dropped, but inadvertantly included in the web site statement: Note: the NTIA's web page has since been corrected.

"NTIA has announced that all households in the United States and its territories--not just those relying on over-the-air television--are eligible to apply for the Coupon Program while the initial funds of $990 million are available. If any of the $510 million in additional funds are needed to meet program demand, then eligibility for these funds will be limited to over-the-air television households and to one coupon per household."

Yesterday's Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on FCC oversight included barely more than an acknowledgement that there was a digital television transition underway. The Members of Congress asking the questions and the FCC Commissioners answering them focused on other topics, most notably encouraging the further deployment of broadband services (but not very much at all on decreasing the cost of those services).

These was also discussion about increasing competition in the distribution of video services (cable), and some rants about the lack of localism in TV programming (i.e. too much popular national entertainment and too little locally produced public interest programming).

Of the written opening statements presented by each of the five FCC Commissioners, only Adelstein's mentioned the digital TV transition. Here's what he said:

"With less than 750 days to the end of analog broadcasting, I believe there is a critical need for greater national attention on the impending DTV transition. More focused leadership is needed. Currently, the DTV preparedness effort lacks a clear national message and a coordinated set of industry activities. To begin to address a general lack of public awareness, the Commission needs to take the following steps: (1) develop a unified, coherent message among federal, state, local and tribal governmental entities; (2) coordinate the message and its delivery with the efforts of the broadcast, cable, satellite, and consumer electronics industries; and (3) educate insular communities about the consequences and benefits of the impending transition.

"Failure to administer a comprehensive national DTV transition plan will almost certainly result in a tsunami of consumer complaints to congressional and other government offices from viewers across the country. To better manage this potential national disruption, I would recommend establishing a clear chain of command. While the NTIA is principally charged with administering the converter box program, the FCC's technical and consumer outreach expertise makes us especially well-suited to spearhead a national consumer education initiative. The two agencies should work collaboratively to develop a unified federal message about the DTV transition, and to inform consumers about options they have to continue receiving broadcast programming after February 17, 2009."

This is wonderful but Adelstein has been getting up on this same soapbox for years and has yet to get any action out of his own agency. Apparently none of the other Commissioners cares.

The industry has been making a big deal of consumer education lately--talking that is, and assembling public relations teams--but word is they will be sitting on their hands for another year before consumers see anything that resembles information about the transition.

By that time they'll be ready to sell converter boxes, and no doubt asking for Federal money to cover their advertising expenses.