Locals want to help residents turn on DTV
By Feb. 17, 2009, TV broadcasters will begin sending programming only as digital signals, which means TV sets that use antennas to receive over-the-air analog channels will need converter boxes to change the digital signals into analog. In response, local and state governments are working to ease the transition for their constituents.
In February, New York-based Nielsen Co. announced that more than 13 million households with analog TV sets are unprepared for the transition. The company found that New York has the lowest percentage of sets — 3.5 percent — not yet ready for the transition, while Portland, Ore., has the highest at 22.4 percent.
Because cities, counties and states use the airwaves to communicate emergency information, officials are concerned. “We don’t want part of the population to be disenfranchised,” says Doug Robinson, executive director of the Lexington, Ky.-based National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), which is working with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to publicize the transition. “For some people, TV is the primary way they receive alerts and warnings.”
As a result of the switch, part of the 700 MHz broadcast spectrum will become available to public safety agencies, providing more bandwidth for communications during emergencies. For example, during a school shooting or fire, maps detailing exits and entrances could be sent between command posts and first responders, says Chris Fischer, president-elect of Daytona, Fla.-based Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International. “The technology is out there, but we haven’t had the bandwidth to support it,” he says.
FCC Commissioner Michael Copps has appealed to the White House for a government interagency task force that would devise a comprehensive plan to educate consumers about their choices, including buying a converter box, purchasing a digital television or subscribing to satellite or cable service. He also has proposed a test switch in select markets.
DTV.gov has tool kits for local governments, including logos, countdown clocks, news release and newsletter article templates, and public service announcements. Also, some private groups are offering resources.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) DTV Speakers Bureau plans to conduct 8,000 presentations before the switchover to allow local broadcasters to answer questions about the transition and demonstrate how to operate a converter box, which is particularly helpful for older residents who may not understand them, says Kate Wade, a team member with the Speakers Bureau.
With nearly one-fourth of its households’ TV sets unprepared for the digital switch, Portland is not waiting for the deadline to draw nearer. “The big issue is that a substantial part of the population relies on TV for public safety information,” says Carmen Merlo, director of Portland’s Office of Emergency Management. In addition to issuing press releases, the city is disseminating information at community events as well as through the Portland Citizen Corps Council and local TV stations.
One thing local governments should not do is count on getting more time to prepare. Many involved, including Robinson and Merlo, say the deadline likely will not be moved.
Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.