WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With about three months to go, U.S. regulators say some consumers are still unprepared for the television industry switch to digital broadcasting, which will affect Americans who do not receive their signals through cable or satellite.
The federally mandated transition was originally set for February 17, but lawmakers postponed it to June 12 on the theory that people need more time to get ready.
The switch from analog to digital allows broadcasters to send more data efficiently, and also frees up the existing analog spectrum for such uses as cellphone and public-safety radio transmissions.
About a third of the nation’s 1,800 full-power broadcasters switched from analog to digital TV signals on the original February 17 date, though only about 15 percent of the nation’s households were affected.
“We must be mindful that this is just the beginning and that the large impacts lie ahead of us,” Eloise Gore, associate chief in the media bureau at the Federal Communications Commission, told a public meeting on the switch on Thursday.
President Barack Obama and most congressional Democrats won a delay of the full digital transition to June 12, after a government coupon program for converter boxes needed for older TVs could not provide coupons due to budget issues. That put millions of households on a coupon waiting list.
Backers of a delay feared vulnerable groups, like the elderly and needy, would lose access to emergency information if they lost television signals for days.
“For many, television is not simply a source of entertainment but a vital source of news that can be a lifeline in an emergency situation,” acting FCC chairman Michael Copps said.
For the most part, the transition in February went smoothly. Significantly fewer calls came into call centers than estimated, for example. Still, the government expects up to 3 million telephone calls for help between now and June 12.
Still, about 5 million U.S. households are still “totally unready” and 2.3 million households are waiting for the $40 government coupons, the government said.
“We are ... struggling with the procrastination of seniors who now see the June 12 date and see they have more time to act,” said Sandy Markwood, chief of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
But that coupon waiting list should be cleared within three weeks now that the government has millions in new stimulus money assigned to re-fund the program and allow it to use first-class mail, among other changes.
The government is now sending out 2 million coupons a week with a turnaround time of 9 days, compared with 21 days, thanks to new funding, an official said.
Among the most common problems for consumers have been reception issues because of antennas that need to be repositioned or replaced. Viewers must also perform a scan to pick up channels once they receive a converter box, according to the FCC.
The converter boxes typically cost between $60 and $80. Originally, the coupon program was intended to cover the full cost.
But a $40 box is “elusive,” conceded Christopher McLean, executive director of the Consumer Electronics Retailers Coalition, which represents many of the companies selling the boxes like Wal-Mart Stores and Best Buy.
Consumers Union said it believes some retailers will not carry the cheaper boxes because they will make slimmer profit margins on them.
That retailers are making the boxes available is “largely a public service,” McLean said. “Consumers need to shop around a little bit” to find cheaper boxes.
The postponement could benefit cable and satellite companies, which could attract more customers during the extension, according to Stanford Washington Research analyst Paul Gallant.
Beneficiaries are likely to include Comcast Corp, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV Group, EchoStar Corp, Mediacom Communications, and Charter Communications, he said.
Major U.S. television networks, including CBS Corp’s CBS, General Electric Co’s NBC and Walt Disney Co’s ABC, vowed last week to continue to transmit TV signals in analog.
Editing by Matthew Lewis