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FCC Commissioner, GAO Highlight Lack of Preparedness; Kohl Announces Legislation

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging Chairman Herb Kohl (D-WI) today held a hearing on the upcoming digital television (DTV) transition and its disproportionate effects on America's seniors. Testimony from Federal Communications Commissioner John Adelstein and Mark Goldstein, Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), corroborated the results of an Aging Committee investigation that found the federal government is drastically unprepared to educate America's seniors about the transition, set to take place February 17, 2009. In addition to highlighting the unique needs and vulnerabilities of older Americans with respect to the transition, the hearing focused on the weaknesses of the Digital-to-Analog Converter Box Coupon Program, specifically the potential for confusion and fraud. Preliminary results of a secret-shopper investigation were presented at the hearing by U.S. Public Interest Research Group (US PIRG), demonstrating that due to the impending transition, up-selling and misleading sales tactics already plague electronics retailers in the D.C. metro area. 
"Seniors are particularly vulnerable to slipping through the cracks of the transition. Not only are they more likely to rely on free over-the-air analog TV signals, but for many seniors television is their only link to the outside world," said Chairman Kohl. "Without adequate planning and coordination, seniors will be left in the dark."
In his testimony, Adelstein spoke to his own agency's lack of preparation, citing the minor efforts the FCC has made to educate seniors about the DTV transition and its implications.  Adelstein's testimony provided a contrast to the letter FCC Chairman Kevin Martin sent to Chairman Kohl over the summer with regard to the DTV transition. 
"Unfortunately, the Commission's DTV outreach and education efforts to date have been lackluster at best," said Commissioner Adelstein. "Specifically, there is a lack of an established command and control structure that is responsible to coordinate the national DTV transition effort and to vet, prioritize and implement meritorious ideas from the public and private sectors into a comprehensive, coherent and coordinated plan."
Chairman Kohl will be introducing critical legislation to establish and fund a public-private partnership between the Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunication and Information Administration, the Administration on Aging and its allied aging network, and industry stakeholders. This public-private partnership would launch a nationwide consumer education campaign in coordination with a diverse advisory board, crafted to ensure that older individuals who depend on analog TV are not left without service after February 17, 2009. Additionally, the partnership would be required to develop a road map for consumer education, with specific and achievable benchmarks, and report to Congress on progress. The legislation will also set requirements for the industry, which has a major financial stake in a successful DTV transition. Such requirements include:  mandatory public service announcements (PSAs); easily identifiable labels on coupon-eligible converter boxes to mitigate the potential for "up-selling" and minimize returns; and the establishment of a toll-free phone number to provide individuals with help with determining if their televisions will go dark and installation assistance.
Goldstein detailed the inter-agency confusion over jurisdiction for the overall DTV transition and noted that currently there are no mechanisms to ensure that consumer awareness efforts will reach those affected by the transition or that the converter box coupons will reach those who need them. Assistant Secretary John M. Kneuer of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) was on hand to discuss the agency's progress in implementing the converter box coupon program. Marcellus Alexander, Executive Vice President of Television at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), announced a new roll-out of PSAs and video packages to all commercial and non-commercial stations this week, adding that a detailed media plan will be unveiled next week. Representatives from AARP and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (N4A) also offered testimony on the necessary steps to ensure that no senior is left in the dark when the transition occurs.
A study conducted by the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) determined that 61 percent of over-the-air households have "no idea" the DTV transition is taking place. A later study commissioned by APTS found that Americans aged 65 and older are consistently more likely to receive television signals via an over-the-air antenna than younger Americans, and are therefore less prepared to transition from analog to digital-only television. The study concluded that seniors should receive unique attention in efforts to educate the public about the impending DTV transition. 
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For more information about the Committee's work regarding the DTV transition, please go to: