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DTV Notebook

11:30 AM -- There was no earth-shattering news during Thursday's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) en banc hearing on the broadcast digital TV transition, but here's a list of some of the bigger takeaways:

We've still got a long way to go
Although one third of the nation's full-power TV stations switched on or before Feb. 17, 2009, much of that action occurred in smaller markets, meaning only 15 percent of U.S. consumers have been affected so far.

"So, we have a long, long, long way to go to get this transition behind us," said acting FCC Chairman Michael J. Copps, noting that there will be many "course corrections" to be made between now and the new "hard" transition date of June 12, 2009. "The greatest part of the test is still ahead of us." (See House Approves DTV Delay .)

Consider Feb. 17 the down payment on the DTV transition. "The balloon payment comes on June 12, when the rest of the country switches," said FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

Adelstein and many other speakers who followed him all noted two significant consumer education issues have bubbled up since almost 500 stations flipped the switch: Some may need to reposition their antennas or get better ones to obtain reception, and will need to tell their converter boxes to scan and rescan for channels to ensure they can receive all the available digital TV channels.

FCC mulling new rules
The Commission received about 30 comments pertaining to several new proposals that came about after the new June 12 transition date was signed into law.

The FCC is expected to start reviewing a new order early next week that will likely require full-power stations that haven't switched yet to alert the FCC of their intentions by March 17. Additionally, the proposal says stations that didn't switch over on the original Feb. 17 transition date can't do so before April 16. (See New Rules!.)

Box coupons flowing again
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has begun to pass out coupons (worth $40 toward the purchase of a digital-to-analog converter box) to a lengthy waiting list. NTIA associate administrator Dr. Bernadette McGuire-Rivera estimated that it will take two-and-a-half weeks to deliver about 4 million coupons to those who are on that list.

She said new funding will allow NTIA to issue 12 million new coupons, and a new ruling that's under way will allow the organization to reissue coupons to consumers who requested them earlier but did not redeem them before the coupons expired. McGuire-Rivera said about 16 million DTV box coupons have expired, and expects consumers to request new coupons for about half that total.

Feb. 17 a 'nonevent'
That's according to National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) president David Rehr, who said "viewer confusion and calls were relatively low" when 491 stations switched on Feb. 17 thanks in large part to a massive education campaign that "saturated" consumers with details about how to prepare for the transition. He estimated that 99 percent of viewers in those markets did not call in with problems.

Call center recalibration
National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) president and CEO Kyle McSlarrow praised the cable and broadcasting industries for working together on the "nitty-gritty engineering" effort required to get ready for the initial cut-over date, but echoed that "we have a huge challenge in front of us."

Part of that will involve recalibrating the number of live agents on hand to help consumers who run into problems. Originally, the plan called for 7,000 to 8,000 live agents, but that was cut down to about 1,400 to account for the reduced number of stations that switched on Feb.17.

Calibrations will have to occur again once all the other stations inform the FCC of their switch-over intentions by March 17, but McSlarrow says most expect June 12 to be the "key date" for those preparations.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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