WASHINGTON U.S. regulators have "no comprehensive plan" for preparing TV viewers for the approaching switch-over to digital television, a congressional study released on Tuesday said.
The study by the Government Accountability Office took issue with the Federal Communications Commission for lacking an overall strategy for the February 17, 2009 switch, which will require broadcasters to change to digital signals from their traditional analog ones.
"Despite efforts by the public and private sectors and ongoing coordination, we found that no comprehensive plan for the transition exists," the GAO said.
The digital TV transition is being closely watched because owners of analog televisions will not be able to watch television unless they subscribe to satellite or digital cable, replace their TV with a digital television by that date or get a converter box.
Congress ordered the switch to digital television because it will free up valuable airwaves for other uses, such as for police and fire departments and because it will lead to improved picture and sound for TV viewers.
The federal government plans to subsidize the cost of buying a digital-analog converter box by offering $40 discount coupons to anyone who owns an analog television. That program is being overseen by an arm of the Commerce Department called the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
The agency's chairman, Kevin Martin, responded in a letter to the GAO, saying he had "significant reservations and concerns with the report's approach and conclusions."
Martin also issued 99 pages of "comprehensive plans, goals and achievements" that the FCC had drawn up to address the digital TV transition.
In their report, the authors of the GAO study said Martin also told them that the FCC "does not have a formal plan in place that is publicly available, but that the various orders contained in FCC dockets amount to a plan."
The GAO's report credited the FCC, NTIA and private industry with making progress in educating consumers about the switch-over. It also said the NTIA had made progress on the converter box program.
The report said private players, including cable operators, broadcasters and the consumer electronics industry, had taken the lead in informing consumers about the digital TV transition.
In a related development, the NTIA issued a press release on Tuesday announcing that it had certified more than 100 retailers to participate in the converter box program, including Best Buy Co Inc, Circuit City Stores Inc, RadioShack Corp, Sears Holdings Corp, Target Corp and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
The retailers represent more than 14,000 stores throughout the United States, the NTIA said.
But according to the GAO, the lack of a "comprehensive" plan makes the switch-over a riskier proposition, raising
potential problems, such as misinformation, inadequate funding and failure to reach some analog TV set owners.
"This raises uncertainty, including whether consumers, particularly underserved and otherwise vulnerable populations, will have the information necessary to respond to the transition and to maintain their access to television programming," the GAO report said.
The GAO report rekindled concerns among some Democratic lawmakers in Congress, who fear the agency is relying too heavily on voluntary industry efforts to notify consumers.
"Without a comprehensive plan that also addresses managing risks and mitigating against potential problems, tens of millions of consumers could be adversely affected and this important transition put needlessly in jeopardy," Democratic Rep. Edward Markey, of Massachusetts, said in a statement.
(Reporting by Peter Kaplan; editing by Carol Bishopric)