FCC Chairman Kevin Martin announced that he will be leaving the Commission on Tuesday as the new President is inaugurated, and thus will not be present at the FCC to set any last minute policy for the DTV transition. In fact, if Martin had decided to stay for the end of the transition, he might well have had to stick around for a while, as there are bills making their way through Congress to delay the February 17 deadline for the transition to digital television. Senator Rockefeller has introduced a bill that would extend the deadline to June 12, which Senate Republicans blocked last week, though it will reportedly be reintroduced this week. At the same time, the three remaining Commissioners have all released letters that indicate that there are significant transition problems that need to be resolved before the transition deadline. While there are those who wonder if the delay will really solve the problems that may exist – the movement is in the direction of a delay.
The letters from the Commissioners are most interesting. First came a letter from Commissioner McDowell, not directed to Congress, but instead to Chairman Martin, publicly asking for information about the FCC’s DTV phone bank to answer questions from consumers about the transition. According to the McDowell letter, he was unable to get information about the status of upgrades to the system to handle the expected influx of calls at the end of the transition. McDowell also complained about calls that were not answered at all, or which had long wait times, when consumers called – wait times that often resulted in connections with a voicemail system. And he raised questions about the failure of the phonebank to be open on weekends. It has now been announced that IBM has been hired to man the phonebank, perhaps answering some of the questions Commissioner McDowell raised in his letter.
The joint letter to Congress from Democratic Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein, however, is more wide ranging, addressing not only the phonebank issue, but a wide range of other issues that they see as blocking a successful transition. They suggest that there has been insufficient coordination with various groups and insufficient education to inform all consumers about the transition. The letter also suggests that there has been insufficient attention to educate the public about specific issues – including the need for adequate antennas for DTV reception (as was mentioned in the NY Times op-ed by two former FCC Chairmen and in one of our previous posts) and closed captioning issues. Finally, they echo Commissioner McDowell’s concerns about the readiness of the FCC’s call center, as well as industry call centers.
On the other side, public safety officials have complained about the delay in freeing some of the spectrum that was to be turned over to them after the end of the transition.
So, we have the remaining Commissioners questioning the readiness for the digital transaction, seemingly joining the Obama administration and many of the Democrats in Congress, while Republican Senators, public safety officials and some in the industry are worrying about the effects of a delay. We should see in the next few days how this all shakes out – whether the transition will go forward as planned, or if we’ll see a delay for a couple of months.