Saturday, January 24, 2009

Millions of Americans too lazy to bother with digital TV transition


President Barack Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill are pushing to delay the transition from analog to digital TV broadcasts from Feb. 17 to June 12 because too many Americans aren’t ready for the switch.
Consumers have had three years to get ready. How much time do they need?
President George W. Bush signed the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act into law on Feb. 8, 2006. It set Feb. 17, 2009, as the last day for analog TV broadcasts.
The transition stumbled recently when the Commerce Department ran out of funding for coupons to help people buy converter boxes for their old analog TVs. Fixing the funding issue is a better idea than delaying the switch by four months.
The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration has been distributing coupons to consumers since Jan. 1, 2008. Households have been able to request two $40 coupons to buy set-top converter boxes. The boxes typically cost $50 to $60, so a consumer’s out-of-pocket expense per box is $10 to $20 after using the coupon. You can only use one coupon per box. The boxes are available at Best Buy, RadioShack, Target, Wal-Mart and elsewhere.
Most households get cable or satellite TV, so they don’t need the special converter boxes. Only homes that rely on antennas, such as “rabbit ears,” to get programming over the air on analog sets need converter boxes.
The Feb. 17 cutoff date for analog broadcasts has been widely publicized for over a year. It would be hard to miss the frequent public service spots on TV and the media coverage of the issue.
The NTIA, which supports sticking to the original deadline, says awareness of the digital TV transition is at nearly 97% now. The other 3% presumably think Ronald Reagan is still president.
Politicians should not bow to the lazy and stupid by moving the analog cutoff date. The federal tax filing deadline is well known, but you don’t see a move to delay it because of a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys.
With the digital TV transition, lawmakers are worried about upsetting voters whose screens might go blank next month. When they can’t watch “American Idol,” they’re going to be royally ticked.
Republicans in the House and Senate have raised concerns that a delay would confuse consumers, create added costs for TV stations that would have to continue broadcasting both analog and digital signals, and burden wireless companies and public safety agencies waiting for spectrum that will be freed up by the switch.
To date, only 53% of coupons distributed have been redeemed. The NTIA has mailed 46.5 million coupons. Of those, 14 million expired and were unused. More than 11.7 million coupons are still active.
On Jan. 4, the full $1.34 billion available for coupons became fully obligated. About 1.2 million households are now on a waiting list for coupons, the NTIA says.
The Nielsen Company reported Jan. 22 that more than 6.5 million U.S. households – or 5.7% of all homes – are not ready for the upcoming transition to all-digital broadcasting. Still, that’s an improvement of more than 1.3 million homes since Nielsen reported readiness status at the end of December.

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