FCC Commissioner Michael Copps speaks to the Tampa Bay area Thursday about DTV transition
More than 163,000 households in the Tampa Bay area do not have cable or satellite TV service, estimated at less than 10 percent. For the state of Florida, that number jumps to 650,000 households.
Which means that thousands of viewers may lose TV service altogether on Feb. 17, when television broadcasters will shift to entirely digital transmissions. On that day, any TV set that depends on traditional analog TV signals collected by typical rooftop or "rabbit ear" antennas, will not receive a picture.
Copps' fear: that the Federal Communications Commission and the rest of government hasn't done enough to warn viewers the switch is coming -- now just 97 days away.
"People just don't understand the challenge ahead," said the commissioner, speaking at a meeting of Hispanic leaders at the Columbia restaurant in Ybor City this afternoon, one of many stops the commissioner has planned across the Tampa Bay area today and Thursday to spread word about the coming change. "It's going to take a community to make the DTV transition work."
Citizens can meet Copps at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Sunshine Center, 330 Fifth St. N in St. Petersburg. (Other FCC officials met Wednesday evening in Tampa.)
Copps and broadcasters' biggest concern is that not enough people know about the change or potential problems, especially among those most likely to be affected: the poor, the elderly, non-English speakers and those living in rural areas.
Some concerns outlined by Copps:
- - Citizens can request up to two $40 coupons from the government to pay for converter boxes that will allow analog TV sets to receive digital signals (the converters cost between $39.99 and $80). But it takes time to receive the coupons, and the commissioner fears the government may run out of funding if demand grows too high.
-- Even if you have a digital converter, sometimes digital transmissions don't travel as far as analog signals or are sent from different transmission towers, affecting reception. And once the switch happens, the converter box may need to be reset, to find channels that have changed location.
-- Currently, cable companies and satellite TV services have agreed to keep providing signals to customers with analog sets after Feb. 17. But each company may eventually decide to upgrade their service solely to digital.
-- Even people who have cable or satellite service may still have TV sets in their homes that receive analog broadcasts in other rooms. If those analog TV sets are not connected to cable, satellite or a converter, they will not work after Feb. 17.
Based on a test conducted in Wilmington, N.C. earlier this year that drew 2,000 calls for help, Copps estimated 1.5-million people nationwide might phone with questions or concerns after the switch, overloading the the FCC's phone banks.
As one of the FCC's two Democratic commissioners, Copps originally pushed for a more aggressive outreach effort similar to preparations made for the anticipated Y2K computer glitch, when the White House convened regular meetings to ensure communities were prepared.
Instead, Copps and the four other FCC commissioners are traveling the country asking community groups and TV outlets to spread word, encouraging them to organize volunteers for outreach and answering phones. He's also hoping Congress might allow each TV market to keep one analog channel broadcasting after Feb. 17, telling viewers still unaware of the switch what happened.
And he's not expecting the incoming president or new Congress to delay the long-planned transition.
"My message is, this is coming and we've got to be prepared," said Copps, wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Web address offering information on the switch, WWW.DTV.gov. (You can also call toll-free 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-9009) for converters.) "This isn't about the ability to watch your favorite TV program . . . it's about staying connected. And there ought to be nobody left behind."