Flaws in NTIAs FAQs May Put Consumers And Media On Wrong Track

The converter box coupons program is rolling in full steam. NTIA reports in a press release that over one million consumers have applied for two million coupons, worth $40 each. That is good but I do wonder if the coupons will reach the people in greatest need. Although there are 32.5 milllion coupons left to apply for.

You can apply on-line or use other options. I hope that poor people get help from family and friends in applying for the coupons. NTIA also boasts that 15.000 retailers are included in the coupons program today and the last date to be included is March 31st. Way to few I think. That is almost 300 stores in each state.

However, on the brand new site dtv2009.gov, dedicated to the coupons program there is also included an FAQ that should answer the mot common questions. Some of them puts, in my view, consumers on a wrong or confused track in making a good choice ahead of the transition.

Here is some examples that you should think twice about:

5. Does someone have to come into my home to install the converter box?

NTIAs answer: No, you should be able to install the converter box yourself using the instructions provided by the manufacturer.

Think twice: Many people, elderly or not so technical, will need to bring home an installation service man to help out. Especially if the antenna is old and needs to be replaced. In Sweden, most businesses who works with TV installations were totally booked two or three months prior a transition, and weeks after. So, the recommendation would be to get in contact with the proper company or professional well ahead of the transition in February 09 to be certain that the TV will continue to work. Also, in many states wintertime will prevail in February, that puts an extra dimension of hardship to the transition.

If you are a landlord without cable or satellite TV, you need even more time.

10. I have a handheld or battery powered TV / can I connect it to a TV converter box?

NTIAs answer: Generally not.

Think twice: People has written to me and asked about battery powered TV-sets. If you think twice, many affected might live in areas where power outages are more or less common. NTIA haven’t ruled out the possibility for manufacturers to produce boxes with alternative power options. They write in the final ruling “Because of the public interest benefit, the Final Rule, therefore, permits, but does not require, manufacturers to provide converter boxes that operate on battery power as well as those which use an external AC/DC power input”. (section J 92).

FCC provides a more balanced FAQ answer for the same question. NABs DTVAnswers do not provide an answer at all.

So, check out the boxes, you might find a box that suits your needs and be able to use the coupon as payment. This also works for consumers with a TV set in their trailer or cabin.

13. Will you be able to watch HDTV on a converter box?

NTIA answer: No. Analog televisions are not capable of displaying High-Definition resolution,
but the picture will generally be better with a TV converter box.

Think twice: The answer doesn’t really relate to the question. You can buy a converter box that shows HDTV on your TV set (if it is HD ready). Like this one from Samsung at Best Buy. But it is more expensive ($179). However you wont be able to use the coupon as payment in this case.

NTIA has not even bothered to explain in the specifications, what kind of conversion (Mpeg2 / Mpeg4) that the converter boxes should our would be able to process. I know this might sound to detailed, but the thing is that most people/consumers will own and view TV with a HDTV ready set in the near future, and if you think you are going to use the coupons for a HDTV capable converter box you are on a wrong track today. And the information at hand is not very clear. Of course, the price tag is higher if the box can handle HDTV. That is a limitation itself.

And due to the great use of HDTV in the U.S it is a crucial part. Also, consumers might end up thinking they haven’t been provided with the proper information or equipment.

Why is this and others FAQs important?

Well, next to consumers – journalist will use and rely on this list to make up their minds and as facts for research to report about the transition. Also, officials around the country will use NTIA as an unbiased source. FAQs are basic ans crucial tools to get the answers straight, both internal and external. From my experience, journalist will need to make a steep learning curve to understand this complex subject to report and explain it in a simple way. At the same time, media will be the most important force in moving consumers and opinions in the direction to a smooth transition.

Since the strongest media, TV, is a prime stakeholder it is bottom line to get things clear in the first place.

What can be done?

The prime movers and stakeholders and actors should sync their facts (FAQs), update them constantly and keep them as simple and clear as possible. Track what people are asking about. There will be a top ten chart of common questions after a while. Number One – with certainty – Do I need a box for each TV set?

And also, take every chance there is to explain the choices the consumer has at hand.

Create guidelines to hand out and inspire consumer journalists to start writing and reporting about the nuts and bolts of the DTV transition, from a consumers perspective.

Anders Bjers

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