In fewer than 200 days, the Digital Television transition will affect every television-watching household in the country. The DTV transition will dramatically enhance the clarity of television broadcasts and allow for new and diverse television programming.
Most importantly, it will free up the frequencies on which data is transmitted to the public, otherwise known as the broadcast spectrum, for important safety activities that will increase the nation's ability to respond to terrorist attacks and national disasters.
Broadcasters will switch from an analog format to digital broadcasting at midnight on Feb. 17, 2009 and the change will be imperceptible to households with cable or digital television service, or those who have already equipped older model TVs with converter boxes.
But those who are not prepared will wake up the next day with neither basic television programming nor access to public emergency broadcasts, such as AMBER Alerts, severe weather warnings, and other important safety messages.
When the DTV transition occurs, customers who rely on rooftop antennas or "rabbit ears" to receive television broadcasts will have to subscribe to a "pay" television service, purchase a TV with a digital tuner, or acquire a converter box for each analog television in their home.
To help defray the cost of converter boxes, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will issue up to two $40 coupons per household to be used toward the cost of a converter box. Consumers may apply for their coupons until March 31, 2009 by calling 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009) or by visiting www.dtv2009.gov. The coupons must be used within 90 days of being issued.
Unfortunately, those who are at the greatest risk of being caught off guard, such as the elderly and non-English speaking populations, face significant obstacles to obtaining sufficient information about the transition. While the government, advocacy groups, and the broadcasting industry have worked to provide educational materials in Spanish and in media that will reach residents without Internet access, many households may slip through the cracks.
Due to the expense of transition and the continued availability of analog programming from Mexico, many households may choose not to participate in the transition. Government data reflecting the number of converter box coupons that have been requested, and redeemed, is extremely low along the border.
Residents across Texas and all over the United States who are aware of the transition must be careful that they don't become the victim of DTV scams that are cropping up around the country. In particular, households should be wary of "discount" converter boxes, "free" coupons, and retailers that try to sell an "installation package" for a converter box.
The FCC's Web site dedicated to the DTV transition is http://www.dtv.gov/. There is also a Spanish-language version at http://www.dtv.gov/spanish/index.html.
I hope that Texans will embrace the spirit of community and look for opportunities to aid friends and family with preparations for the DTV transition. You could help a housebound senior who is unable to get to the store to redeem his or her converter box coupon, assist your neighbor in setting up a converter box, or prevent others from being taken advantage of by warning them of possible scams.
Kay Bailey Hutchison is a U.S. Senator for the state of Texas. Readers may contact her via telephone at (210) 340-2885.