International Municipal Lawyers Association - Local Government Blog

Obama’s Hurricane Katrina? | January 7, 2009

Posted by: Nicholas P. Miller, Partner, Miller & Van Eaton, PLLC
Watch for February 17, 2009.  It will be a big day in your community, and for the entire nation.

You may have heard.  On February 17, 2009, ALL of the nation’s analog television broadcast stations go black simultaneously.[1] [DOC-280586A1.doc ]

Euphemistically called the “DTV Conversion”, 2/17/09 is D-Day for an estimated 15 to 20 million households which receive their TV “over the air”.  These tend to be the most vulnerable and isolated citizens in your community: those who are elderly, poor and foreign language dependent. 

Characteristic of so much else in the last 8 years, the Bush Administration has done it again—left a big pile of trouble for the Obama Administration to clean up.  But there will not be enough time for the Obama folks to have much impact.

In the words of FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein,  “In your community, a lot of people are going to need help, but it’s not yet clear where that help is going to come from….  The DTV transition isn’t ready for prime time.” [Click Here]

Like a hurricane, this event was predictable for the last 20 years, as soon as the Federal Communications Commission and Congress determined that all television broadcasters should convert from analog to digital format signals.  [FCC-08-56A1.doc]  And the 85% of households “on high ground” should be OK, if still disrupted.  Their major televisions are hooked to a cable television system or to a satellite television network and will not be directly affected.  However, even in these households, multiple TVs may not be connected to the cable television system and they too will “go dark” if they can’t receive digital TV signals.

The remaining 15% of ALL households which do not subscribe to any cable television or satellite TV are going to have problems.  Only a small percentage of these over-the-air households own a digital television.  These households are least likely to be aware of the coming change, to have the technical savvy to equip their old analog TVs to receive the new digital signals[2], or to have the financial capability to buy the digital converter or to improve their antenna.

A prior “early roll-out” of the DTV conversion in Wilmington NC indicates the scope of the problem your community will experience.  You should expect your share of 2.2 million households nationwide to seek help in the first days after the national transition deadline.  And that’s the optimistic scenario.  Again, in Adelstein’s words, “[In Wilmington] the problems led viewers to need either phone or direct technical assistance, which could take upwards of 40 minutes on the phone for each household.” 

You need to alert your City leadership and to get local DTV assistance volunteers ready to go.  A reasonable set of steps for your community:

1.            Encourage tech savvy individuals to assist family members, friends, and neighbors with converter box installation. 

2.            Create a local phone bank with sufficient capacity to handle your share of the predicted 2 million phone calls in the days immediately following February 17. 

3.            Send speakers to Churches, community groups, and others serving the foreign-language and elderly communities.

4.            Ask your local telephone company, cable and satellite employees to get involved on a local level with local phone banks and help people to install converter boxes and new antennas in homes. 

Good luck to us all, and especially to President Obama on February 17. 

[1] Some temporary emergency exceptions are possible in the so-called “Analog Nightlight” legislation.  See Short-term Analog Flash and Emergency Readiness Act (“Analog Nightlight Act”), Pub. L. No. 110-459, 122 Stat. 5121 (2008).  The bill, S. 3663, was signed into law on December 23, 2008

[2] Three things are needed to receive the new digital TV signals:

1.        A NEW converter box that allows an analog TV to receive a digital signal;

2.        A strong digital signal from the local broadcast tower;

3.        Technical ability to self-install the converter box and make any needed antenna improvements.



  1. So is this a democrat political blog now?

    Comment by Lance Jones — January 8, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

  2. The IMLA blog is apolitical. It is intended to stimulate thought and civil discussion. We are fairly certain that there is ample opportunity to offer criticism of the policies of many of our leaders, institutions, governments or the IMLA Executive Director regardless of political affiliation or ideology. The views of those posting on the blog, including myself are not necessarily the views of the IMLA, they are simply the views of the poster. IMLA reserves the right not to post comments when they stray from civility. Chuck

    Comment by Chuck Thompson — January 8, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

  3. With all the PSAs the Denver metro stations have been doing, one would have to be living in a cave without TV to miss the digital conversion on 2/17/09. One station station has been going out to various homes and demonstratig how to see if an upgrade is necessary, and how to do the upgrade.

    This will be another Y2K nothing burger.

    Comment by Brad D. Bailey — January 8, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

  4. Brad, I think the burger will be bigger than in Y2K. I believe the USA Today reported today on some interest and discussions about postponing the switchover. As I understand it, the Commerce Dept. has run out of converter box coupons and there is some anticipation of millions of households needing the converters, but who now will not have access to the coupons. Frankly, when I read about the issue I was stunned, as I did not realize that cable penetration was not as broad as I thought. Either folks with cable snapped up the coupons that they didn’t need, or the number of households needing converters was underestimated. In any event the issue seems a combination of whether people know about the switchover (hard to believe anyone does not) and whether households needing converter boxes have access to the government coupons.

    Comment by Chuck Thompson — January 8, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

  5. The Washington Post reports this morning that both Senate and House are considering legislation to postpone the Feb 17 date “until the nation is better prepared.” So we may all have more time to get our local communities better prepared.

    The DTV will be a serious problem for a portion of the populationthat that is largely invisible in the general news media but are heavy users of local government services.

    The Wilmington FCC DTV conversion experiment showed that nearly 100% of the population had prior knowledge of the change-over date (due to an incredible amount of local advertising). But a high percentage (10-15%) of the over-the-air homes still had major problems making the new converters work and getting the necessary antenna adjusted/replaced. Those were the numbers when the population was 100% aware.

    I apologize if anyone took my comment about the Bush Administration’s inadequate preparations as partisan. It is a fundamental, and important, lesson from the Reagan years that government needs to anticipate the unintended consequences of its actions–and deal responsibly with them. It is not partisan to point out incompetent government actions.

    This coming DTV conversion problem is solely a product of a government decree — to turn off the analog television signals.

    Comment by Nicholas Miller — January 8, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

  6. Here is a further update on the widening awareness of problems with DTV conversion;

    Comment by Nicholas Miller — January 12, 2009 @ 4:00 pm

  7. See Acting Chair Copp’s comments for the latest on the FCC’s efforts–as of 30 jan 09.

    Remarks of Acting Chairman Copps to the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee.

    As of this writing, it looks like the House will pass a delay in the DTV transition next week. The Senate has acted for a second time and the House leadership is bringing the bill to the floor under a normal rule, which will require only 50% to pass and go to the President.

    Comment by Nicholas Miller — January 30, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

  8. Here is the statement by Acting FCC Chair Michael Copps today in response to the Congress passing the DTV extension legislation:

    “I welcome Congressional passage of the DTV Delay Act. It has long been clear to me–and it’s even clearer since I became Acting FCC Chairman two weeks ago–that the country is not prepared to undertake a nationwide transition in twelve days without unacceptably high consumer dislocation.

    “The additional four months provided by the law affords urgently-needed time for a more phased transition, including a consumer-friendly converter box coupon program, stepped-up consumer outreach and support–particularly for vulnerable populations–and dealing with coverage, antenna and reception issues that went too long unaddressed.

    “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but thanks to great leadership in the Senate and House of Representatives, we now have an opportunity to do it better.”

    Comment by Nicholas Miller — February 4, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

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This blog is made possible by the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA), but may include guest bloggers (who are attorneys with experience in local government matters) who might or might not work for IMLA. Their views (and those expressed on this site) do not necessarily express the views of IMLA.







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