They packed the small auditorium in San Francisco's Mission Neighborhood Center, situated in the heart of the city's Spanish-speaking district: a handful of reporters and a sizable contingent of elderly Mexican-American women there on Thursday to hear Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein talk about how to prepare for the DTV transition. All five of the FCC's commissioners are touring the country's biggest markets to publicize the February 17 deadline, when full power analog television stations will go digital. Adelstein chose the Cool Gray City of Love.
Arms folded and shopping bags at their sides, las mujeres (and Ars) quickly drifted into somnolent boredom. But we woke with a start when Adelstein began his speech in confident español.
"De nada," he said to California Public Utilities Commissioner (CPUC) Rachelle Chong, who introduced and thanked him for coming to the event. Then Adelstein explained that he would speak Spanish on and off as he could, but also rely on the translator standing to his side.
That translator was provided courtesy of (wait for it) cable TV provider Comcast, which, when not suing the FCC over its P2P blocking order, has clearly taken an interest in the transition. In fact, the Neighborhood Center's director described the event as "a very important presentation that we are going to be providing to you on behalf of the Federal Communications Commission and our partners at Comcast."
Jonathan Adelstein: Comcastic!
speaker of Spanish
As she spoke, a Comcast handler distributed a flyer to the audience. "Relájate," it began. "Comcast es la solucion mas fácil para hacer la transición a la televisión digital" (Relax. Comcast is the easiest solution to make the transition to digital television)—the point presumably being that cable-serviced sets will not be affected by the switch.
A Comcast executive quietly sat at the speakers' table next to Chong and Adelstein throughout the presentation. Ars counted three Comcast staffers standing in the back of the room.
At least Adelstein's comments didn't mention Comcast. He gave a tutorial on how to get those discount coupons from the Department of Commerce, good for a set-top box that will convert digital TV signals to analog signals for older television sets. Then he explained how to install the box and talked about some of the more frequent errors made during the installation process (not keeping the TV on a specified channel and sometimes not replacing old antennas).
Audience members asked him technical questions in Spanish which he answered back in Spanish and English. Several participants extolled the virtues of various set-top box converters, including the Insignia model sold at Best Buy.
"Nice to see Comcast and the FCC working together," Ars said as Adelstein walked off. He laughed and gave a slight roll of his eyes.
¿Qué usted piensa en Wilmington?
As Adelstein spoke, some of the glow had already faded from the FCC's test run of the transition in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Monday, September 8. The FCC's news release extolled the results of the city's early switch, noting that most Wilmingtonians knew about the transition. But, as Ars has reported, hundreds of the market's 14,000 analog-only households had considerable difficulty getting converter boxes, setting them up, or dealing with antenna problems. More reported problems on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Prior to his tutorial, Adelstein told local reporters that these results came after the FCC put an enormous amount of focus and money into Wilmington, raising tough questions about how the transition will go nationally. During the presentation, Ars asked the CPUC's Chong how prepared San Francisco is to field assistance to this hilly city's Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Hmong-speaking analog TV owners, many of them elderly and poor.
No doubt, Chong responded, on February 17 there will be lots of people who "knew about the transition but didn't prepare for it," and she ran down a list of public service agencies and companies (such as Comcast) that will voluntarily field calls on The Day After. But there is an easygoing quality to the DTV talk in this city that is worrisome. The San Francisco Chronicle put its story about the event in its business section, as if this matter were just about business.
Then, on Friday, the FCC's senior Democrat sounded the alarm on the DTV transition, warning of "enormous consumer disruption" after February 17 if more proactive steps are not taken soon.
Michael Copps: prophet of doom,
destroyer of worlds, pale horse rider
"The climb before us strikes me as daunting as ever and time is growing short," Michael Copps concluded in an open letter to FCC Chair Kevin Martin that was published on the agency's Web site.
With 160 days left to go until the last day of analog broadcasting for full power stations, Copps offered a worried interpretation of the Commission's test run in Wilmington.He noted that Wilmington had only half the national average of over-the-air TV viewers, and of its 14,000 over-the-air households, 1,536 called the FCC or some other service for help with a transition-related problem.
Extrapolating from this number, Copps warned that "1.46 million consumers could be looking for answers when full-power analog broadcasting ends next February."
One of the main points in Copps' letter is that the nation's televised DTV-awareness campaign will soon have accomplished all it can; time now to focus on helping consumers who get stuck after the analog cutoff—particularly those having trouble installing those set-top boxes.
Copps recommended that the FCC step up its DTV-related work in nine areas. Field testing heads the list, particularly in mountainous and hilly areas like San Francisco. Wilmington's flat terrain "limited the lessons we can learn about how digital signals travel in urban areas with tall buildings or in areas with mountains, valleys or other challenging terrain," Copps wrote.
Other suggestions included designating certain FCC help-line staff to focus on at-risk communities: the elderly, people with disabilities, rural consumers, and the poor. Copps also wanted the Commission and other agencies to ramp up their call centers to assist the many households that know about the transition but will have trouble setting up their converter box.
He also urged the FCC to set up a web-based "consumer forum" where communities can share information and help each other troubleshoot problems.
"While there is always a chance of inaccurate or incomplete information being posted, the benefits would far outweigh the risks," Copps wrote. "Good information will generally squeeze out bad information, and FCC staff can weigh in if misinformation is brought to our attention—just as private companies do."
Finally, Coppsrecommended the FCC help broadcasters find a way to sustain an analog signal for two weeks after the switchover, transmitting information about where to go for help with the migration to digital. Low-power TV broadcasters, who will still be streaming in analog, could and doubtless will assist with this, too.
Further reading:Michael Copps' letter to FCC Chair Kevin MartinPosted on