Is DTV Transition the Next ‘Y2K’?

Posted October 21, 2007 at 11:00pm

Consider the events leading up to Jan. 1, 2000, a day popularly known as “Y2K.” There was a common fear that, when the clock struck midnight to ring in the new millennium, computers all across the country would simultaneously crash.

Today we know that the panic over Y2K was unnecessary. But had computer malfunctions actually occurred, Americans would have been prepared, thanks to the government’s proactive work.

Prior to Jan. 1, 2000, the federal government coordinated a comprehensive effort to ensure that the nation was ready for potential catastrophe. Beginning two years before the dreaded day, then- President Bill Clinton appointed an interagency task force of 40

senior federal officials and ordered the group to meet monthly. The task force launched a “national action week” to inform consumers about potential dangers, organized hundreds of events across the country, purchased newspaper advertisements and mailed instructional materials to millions.

Compare this to what’s being done to prepare consumers for the approaching digital television transition — an event that could potentially disrupt millions of households. As of now, we are woefully unprepared.

The countdown has begun. Feb. 17, 2009, is just 16 months away. On that day, analog televisions not connected to a converter box, cable or satellite, which today number in the tens of millions, will go dark because they will be unable to receive digital signals. Of the households with unconnected analog sets, almost half have annual incomes of less than $30,000. The majority of them are headed by either an elderly person or native Spanish speaker. Clearly, those expected to be most affected by the transition also will be the most difficult to reach.

What’s required for a successful transition? First and foremost, government leadership. At a recent Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, a Government Accountability Office representative testified that, although this transition is rapidly approaching, there is no clear governmental leader. Without question, the Federal Communications Commission should be spearheading the process.

Another important responsibility must be fulfilled by the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which has a distinct, statutorily defined role in administering a national coupon program. The NTIA plans to distribute up to two $40 coupons per household, which can be used to subsidize the cost of a converter box. Though the NTIA will play an important part, the FCC is the most appropriate agency to lead and coordinate the comprehensive transition effort. The FCC also would be wise to heed the lessons of Y2K and create an interagency task force to facilitate a smooth transition.

The good news is that some progress has been made.

In August, the NTIA took a significant step forward when it named IBM the vendor of the converter box coupon program.

But many questions remain about the program’s logistics. When will retailers start placing orders for converter boxes? Will the boxes be on store shelves by Jan. 1, 2008, the date coupons become available? How will the mailing of coupons with a 90-day expiration date be coordinated with the availability of converter boxes in a particular area? What happens if a consumer arrives at a store with coupon in hand on the day it expires and the retailer is out of boxes? These matters must be swiftly resolved so the coupon program can be up and running on Jan. 1, 2008.

Industry and consumer groups also must be enlisted as partners. These groups can help us reach many of the at-risk populations, such as the elderly, the economically disadvantaged, people with disabilities and those who live in rural and other underserved communities who will need particular attention. I am pleased that the National Association of Broadcasters and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association have each announced plans to conduct substantial consumer education campaigns. More organizations and more companies must follow their lead.

Although the clock is ticking, we still have time to ensure this transition goes smoothly. But we must not delay preparation efforts or become distracted. I plan to keep a close eye on all progress so that no consumer wakes up on Feb. 18, 2009, to find their television screen has gone dark.

Ever since the sky did not fall on Jan. 1, 2000, Y2K has become a punchline, synonymous with overblown fears and unnecessary panic. We should be so lucky if, after the transition, DTV is similarly regarded.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) is chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.