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Subcommittee Wants More DTV Education

Some members of the House Commerce and Energy’s Subcommittee on Telecommunications appeared to make public education to the digital television transition a matter of renewed urgency after hearing testimony 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 voice mail message from her son, moments before he was killed in the collapse of the Twin Towers. She said because emergency workers in the towers could not communicate with the ground due to inadequate communications systems, 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 vowed to work to see that the transition goes through on Feb. 17, 2009 as planned.

Indeed, most of the committee members seemed to support work on a swift, carefully crafted and broadly disseminated consumer education campaign on the upcoming transition.

The messages will advertise the government’s digital-to-analog converter box coupon program to which all over-the-air TV viewers can apply to cover $40 of the cost of an estimated $60 converter device.

But some subcommittee appeared less than convinced that the education initiatives will be enough in the allotted time.

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 Mike 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, [negligent retailers] are engaging in very bad consumer purchases.”

However, he 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 in very high that a Best Buy floor sales person 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) coupon program.

“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.”

Meanwhile, John Taylor, LG Electronics government affairs VP, showed the sub-committee members a prototype of a compact set-top converter that his company proposes to sell under the program. 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.”