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Talk About Consumer Education

Sepember 30, 2007

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) held its DTV Expo on Tuesday followed by the FCC's Consumer Education Workshop on Wednesday. Wave the flag and cheer.

NTIA's DTV Expo, a.k.a. the great "Digital Television Transition Public Meeting, Expo and Networking Event" ran for about three hours Tuesday morning. Speakers were from the usual government agencies, the TV industry, and a few other advocacy groups. NTIA is running the government's digital-to-analog converter box subsidy program.

NTIA cheered on the industry's upcoming digital television marketing campaign, reassuring everyone that the transition was going to be a big success. FCC Commissioner Adelstein warned about the dark side. The Veterans Administration said it was going to do its part to educate the millions of military veterans coming to visit in its hospitals.

RadioShack announced it was going to participate in the converter box coupon program, but couldn't say when.

The NTIA took so long in getting the program started that their contractor (IBM) will be unable to develop the electronic coupon redemption and tracking systems in time to be integrated (and tested) into retailers' computers before November.

RadioShack mentioned that for retailers to play with their POS (point of sale) software during the months of November and December was something they didn't do. Anyone with experience in retail knows that having a glitch in your cash register systems during the holiday buying season would be the kiss of death.

Retailers had warned NTIA of that issue over a year ago, to no avail, so all of this has to be done in 2008. Which is why NTIA set January - March as the "start-up and operational capability demonstration (OCD) phase." Followed by coupon distribution and redemption beginning in April.

They're all hoping to get it done faster (closer to the January 1 date ordered by Congress).

The FCC got its chance the next day. Its Consumer Education Workshop lasted from 9:00 a.m. to around 2:30, and featured many of the same organizations, if not quite the same speakers. More cheering by the industry and the NTIA, and some more cautionary statements by Commissioners Copps and Adelstein. Chairman Martin is always more circumspect and politically correct. Commissioners McDowell and Tate seem pretty detached from the digital TV thing (McDowell is still very analog cable.)

The Commission had invited a number of advocates to participate in the workshop--people who would be in a position to spread the word to their respective constituencies. These included several consumer advocacy groups, as well as organizations representing specific populations considered to be "at risk" (American Association of People with Disabilities, AARP, Appalachian Regional Commission, La Raza, NAACP, National Puerto Rican Association, U.S. Administration on Aging, U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Native Public Media, Southeast Asia Resource Action Center).

Many of the representatives were not overly familiar with the transition themselves; many volunteered their organizations as a "resource," which seemed to mean--either explicitly or implicitly explained--that if you gave them some money, they would develop and implement a program to educate their people.

Not real promising. Neither was the FCC's statement that they intended this to be the first in a series of workshops where such groups could come together to discuss how best to educate the American public about the upcoming end to the transition to digital TV.

We're getting really close, guys. Maybe we should just start telling all of those three hundred million television viewers what we know . . .

Until next week -- Reply Comments on the FCC's Consumer Education Initiative are due on Monday.