The end is near, and this time, the feds mean it. The switch is being thrown next week to end broadcast television as we've known it for 60 years. Nobody should expect a last-minute reprieve from the president this time. "Anyone who thinks there's another chance of a delay had better wake up and smell the converter box," says Michael Copps, a federal regulator overseeing the transition to digital TV.
The good news is that the country is better prepared to make the switch than it was during the last drill—a February deadline that was aborted by President Obama and Congress. They stalled the transition until June 12 and pumped up government assistance. To the surprise of many, agencies made good use of the added time and money. "They picked up the pieces of a disorganized and disoriented education program," says Joel Kelsey of Consumers Union.
Several factors helped. The biggest was a boatload of money—$650 million that was included in the economic stimulus bill Obama signed in February. First, the cash rescued a bankrupt program to help consumers pay for converter boxes. It stopped the government from reneging on its promise of $40 coupons for boxes to convert digital signals for old TVs.
Another factor was a more consumer-friendly administration coming into office and taking responsibility for the transition. New agency heads were willing to concede that there were serious problems with the change to digital broadcasts. That was partly because the new administration hadn't created them. The TV switch could be seen as just another mess that Obama inherited.
Agencies also had money for fixes. The stimulus windfall helped staff call centers, print new brochures, and beef up what had been skimpy information on the Web. The Federal Communications Commission even put "boots on the ground" in the form of volunteers and hired installers to help befuddled consumers.
But not all is roses and clear signals. Some 3 million households could still end up with white static. These households depend entirely on broadcast TV and don't have new TVs with digital tuners, or they don't have converter boxes for their old sets. Millions of other households think they're ready but will be rudely surprised when that old TV in the garage that's not connected to the home's cable system displays only broadcast snow.
So consumers should ponder if they're truly unaffected and if they're ready for the most disruptive change ever in broadcast TV. Here are points to keep in mind:
Phone home. Thankfully, the government rolled several help numbers into one simple call: 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322). Trained operators reportedly know how to answer just about any question thrown their way, or they can connect you to someone who can. Check out the wholly revamped website, fcc.gov, which is chock-full of helpful information. It's a night-and-day improvement over the thin and confusing information that was offered last year.
Tap the largess. Don't be cocky and assume you'll never need converter boxes. Most homes have at least one old set, VCR, or TiVo that depends on broadcast TV. Or maybe one day you'll get tired of ever rising bills and want to cut the cable service. Perhaps you'll inherit an old TV that doesn't have a digital tuner. Get a pair of $40 government coupons, use them to buy converter boxes (sometimes at no added cost), and stick them on a shelf. If nothing else, friends or neighbors will think you a hero when you've got a box to help one of them. The door slams shut to new coupon applicants on July 31.
[It can be even harder to install a converter box with a TiVo.]
Retap the largess. Millions of Americans got coupons, then never spent them. The coupons expired after 90 days, and those households could not reapply. That is, until Congress came to the rescue with the switchover delay, which also reopened the government's pockets to neglectful consumers. Holders of expired coupons can now apply to get new coupons.