Washington — In hearing testimony on the digital television converter box program here Wednesday, members of the House Commerce and Energy’s Subcommittee on Telecommunications appeared to make public education about the transition a matter of renewed urgency after hearing a plea from the mother a man killed in the World Trade Center disaster, due to what she said was inadequate emergency communication infrastructure.
Mary Fetchet, founding director and president of Voices of Sept. 11, played a voicemail message from her son, moments before he was killed in the collapse of towers. She said emergency workers in the towers could not communicate with the ground due to inadequate communications systems, and as a result, her son was told not to evacuate the building after it was struck by a hijacked jet.
Fetchet pleaded that emergency communications spectrum be freed as quickly as possible to prevent similar events in future disasters.
Her testimony moved a number of the subcommittee members, including Congresswoman Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who pointed out to those testifying that in comparison to Fetchet’s plea, everything else was trivial, and she vowed to work to see that the transition goes through on Feb. 17, 2009, as planned.
Indeed, instead of considering pushing back the transition date again to prevent the neediest consumers from losing their TV programming in 2009, as some have proposed, most of the committee members seemed to support work on a swift, carefully crafted and broadly disseminated consumer education campaign to the DTV transition. The program will also advertise the government’s digital-to-analog converter box coupon program to which over-the-air TV viewers can apply to cover $40 of the cost of an estimated $60 converter device.
But Subcommittee Chairman Edward Markey (D-Mass) illustrated how the consumer education initiative has yet to effectively take off in U.S. retail stores when he questioned Michael Vitelli, senior VP of Best Buy and a representative of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition (CERC).
Vitelli said retailers are playing a vital role in the education of consumers to the digital television transition, but under Markey’s questioning he acknowledged that Best Buy stores are not currently displaying warning stickers on analog-only television sets, and does not prominently advertise the approaching analog broadcast cutoff date near such sets.
“You should,” Markey told Vitelli, “and I think our committee is going to insist that you and your association warn from now on all consumers that the analog TV set will not work in two years, and were going to ask you report back to the committee as to the types of warnings on the sets or near those sets, and what requirements you’ve placed on sales people for the next year. Otherwise, [consumers] are engaging in very bad consumer purchases.”
However, Vitelli said Best Buy plans to make applications for set-top box converter coupons available at all of his chain’s store outlets, and added that today the likelihood is very high that a Best Buy floor salesperson would know about the TV reception ramifications of the DTV transition and solutions to preventing them.
But he was reluctant to verbally commit to having supplies of converter boxes on hand in all Best Buy stores on Jan. 1, 2008, when converters are scheduled to first become available under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) converter box program rules.
“We haven’t done an analysis yet to determine which stores they need to be in, or how many different manufacturers’ boxes we need to carry,” he told Markey.
“There are 23 million homes that don’t have a way of watching television unless they buy a converter box, and we want to hear you say, `All our stores will have converter boxes.’ Mr. Vitelli, can you please say that right now?” Markey asked.
“We will have boxes available for people,” Vitelli responded, “on the assumption of when they are available and that they need them … If there are converter boxes available [on Jan.1, 2008] we will have them in our stores.”
Ranking minority Sub Committee member Fred Upton, (R-Mich.), pointed out that a handful of Republican Congressmen have signed on to House Bill HR608, which is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), to require consumer education initiatives for the digital transition including a retail obligation to warn customers purchasing televisions about the upcoming cutoff date.
“I’m sorry to say it was introduced a couple of months ago and other than the two co-sponsors — Mr. Hastert and I — nobody else has co-sponsored it,” Upton said. “If we want to see the legislation moved, it has to be bi-partisan. We want to see the requirement put back, and maybe if we could get Mr. Markey’s support and others, being as they now hold the gavel, we could get this legislation moved. But it would require consumer education for everyone going to stores, whether it be Best Buy or Sears or any [CE retailer].”
In formal remarks before the committee Vitelli warned that an NTIA-required electronic data interchange system to redeem coupons at the point of sale must be as smooth and dependable as possible.
“In order for the NTIA’s [converter box] program to be successful, the program has to work with retailers and their systems. CERC has been concerned that the NTIA design a program that is feasible for a broad scale of small, medium and large retailers, including online only retailers, such as our member Amazon.com,” Vitelli said.
“We know that NTIA’s selection of a turnkey program vendor, which it plans to announce on Aug. 15 of this year, may be the key to determining whether the necessary electronics systems for processing coupons and handling payments will be feasible for a broad scale of retailers and their customers.”
Processing bugs in such systems at the point of sale can be annoying and disruptive to Best Buy and its customers, and could literally put smaller retailers out of business, he added.
Meanwhile, John Taylor, LG Electronics’ government affairs VP, showed the sub-committee members a prototype of a compact set-top D-to-A converter that his company proposes to sell under the converter box program for about a $20 out-of-pocket charge after redemption of a $40 coupon.
Taylor said “it’s hard to put your finger” on the number of coupons that will be used to purchase the forthcoming converter boxes.
“We think there will be demand for tens of millions of boxes, but when you look at what is going to happen over the next two years between now and February 2009, more than 60 million digital television receivers will be purchased by American consumers, separate from the coupon program,” Taylor said. “That’s the result of the FCC’s digital tuner mandate that requires all television sets shipped in interstate commerce as of this March to have digital television tuners. Our plan at LG Electronics is to introduce this converter box in early 2008 in time for the digital coupon program, and to sell it for around $60.”
Taylor said LG feels consumer education to the transition is vitally important, and is actively working on projects to assist in that cause. The company is part of the Digital Television Coalition, “whose singular goal is to see that no consumer’s analog TV goes without service for lack of information,” he added.