Digital Television Transition:

Increased Federal Planning and Risk Management Could Further Facilitate the DTV Transition

GAO-08-43: Published: Nov 19, 2007. Publicly Released: Dec 11, 2007.

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The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 requires all full-power television stations to cease analog broadcasting by February 17, 2009. Following this digital television transition, consumers who receive over-the-air television signals on analog sets will need to take action to be able to view digital broadcasts. The act also requires the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to create a program that subsidizes consumers' purchases of digital-to-analog converter boxes. This requested report examines progress made (1) by federal entities and others in facilitating the transition, (2) in educating consumers on the transition, and (3) in implementing the converter box subsidy program. GAO reviewed legal, agency, and industry documents; interviewed public, private, and other stakeholders; and convened an expert panel focused on consumer outreach.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and NTIA, in conjunction with other stakeholders, have taken actions to facilitate the digital television (DTV) transition. FCC has primary responsibility to regulate the broadcast television industry and, as such, has set deadlines for broadcasters to upgrade station equipment and conducted periodic reviews related to the transition. NTIA has issued a contract for services related to its converter box subsidy program. Industry stakeholders, including broadcasters, have begun to prepare for the transition. Despite these efforts, GAO found no comprehensive plan or strategy to measure progress and results. Such planning includes managing and mitigating risks, which can help organizations identify potential problems before they occur and target limited resources. GAO has reported on the benefits of risk management in helping organizations involved in high stakes efforts similar to the DTV transition. FCC, NTIA, industry, and other private sector stakeholders have made progress in educating consumers about the DTV transition, but these efforts are mostly in the planning phase, and challenges remain. Both FCC and NTIA have developed informational materials on the transition and begun reaching out to consumer and stakeholder groups. Private sector stakeholders are leading consumer outreach efforts on a voluntary basis. This includes developing a coalition of over 160 business, trade, and other organizations committed to providing consumers with information about the transition; planning public service announcements; developing Web sites; and encouraging media coverage. An expert panel GAO convened identified key practices for consumer education planning, including coordinating among stakeholders, constructing consistent messages, researching target audiences, and establishing metrics to measure success. The expert panel also noted that potential challenges for consumer outreach include prioritizing limited resources, educating consumers who do not necessarily need to take action, and reaching underserved populations. It remains unclear whether public-private sector interaction can ensure a consistent message to prevent consumer confusion. NTIA has made progress in implementing a subsidy program for converter boxes, but the program faces challenges. The current program allows households to request up to two $40 coupons toward the purchase of eligible converter boxes. While the program's outcome depends on the ability of NTIA and its contractor to encourage and coordinate the voluntary participation of retailers and manufacturers, NTIA remains ultimately responsible for the program. There is also uncertainty regarding retailer readiness and participation in the program, as well as potential challenges related to inventory planning. If retailers' participation is limited or delayed, consumers might face difficulties in redeeming their coupons for converter boxes, without which some might lose access to television programming.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FCC provided GAO a 96-page draft document in response to our recommendation. Similar to the elements we recommended FCC develop in a comprehensive plan, this draft document compiles FCC actions and other activities related to the transition and includes four main sections: technical goals, policy goals, consumer outreach goals, and other critical elements. For these sections, the document includes items such as goals, progress and performance, milestones, time frames and steps, reporting requirements, and risks and related mitigation strategies. We note, however, that significant portions of the document simply review past actions as opposed to analyzing current and future needs to meet the DTV deadline or ensure nationwide access to television. Thus, the document neither meets the requirements for a strategic plan, nor is it sufficiently transparent to guide stakeholders to meeting the DTV goals or in serving as a road map to facilitate effective collaboration between the various stakeholders to ensure the intent of the DTV transition. To fully address our recommendation, we believe more remains to be done to finalize a comprehensive plan. In response to our recommendation, the FCC Chairman said FCC does not have a formal plan in place that is publicly available, but that the various orders contained in FCC dockets amount to a plan. With the DTV transition scheduled to occur in February 2009, we believe FCC will take no further action on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help facilitate the digital television (DTV) transition through comprehensive planning and risk management, in consultation with public and private stakeholders, the Chairman, Federal Communications Commission, should develop and communicate a comprehensive plan for the various aspects of the DTV transition, encompassing technical, policy, consumer outreach, and other critical elements. The plan should include (1) detailed goals, milestones, and time frames that can be used to gauge performance and progress, identify gaps, and determine areas for improvement; (2) strategies for collaboration between public and private sector stakeholders to agree on roles and responsibilities; (3) a description of reporting requirements to track stakeholder efforts against planned goals; and (4) strategies for managing and mitigating risks to avoid potential problems and target federal resources.

    Agency Affected: Federal Communications Commission


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