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More than 3 million Americans still need to prepare for the transition to digital TV. A toll-free hotline set up by the Federal Communications Commission may help those who have questions or problems.
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msnbc.com
updated 5/26/2009 9:15:55 AM ET 2009-05-26T13:15:55

Here's the number to remember June 12 if your television doesn't get your regular channels, if you waited until the last minute to make the transition to digital TV, or if you have any questions about it: 1-888-225-5322 (1-888-CALL FCC).

It's a key resource for help, which may be needed by some. In the months since the Feb. 17 transition was delayed by Congress, more Americans are ready for the digital switch, but there are still 3.3 million of them, or 2.9 percent of households, that remain "completely unready," according to the Nielsen Co.

That's a big improvement from three months ago, when nearly 6 percent of households were not prepared for the switch from analog to digital signals, said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.

"There's going to be pockets of people that are going to be unprepared by June 12," he said. "The goal is to get that down to the least number of people in that bucket as possible. The Federal Communications Commission has been working with and funding community groups to get the word out, to kind of do search-and-rescue on those folks that are still unprepared. Those were all things that were missing in a big way over the last year and a half, and that were finally delivered after Congress made the decision to delay the transition."

Congress also approved $650 million as part of the economic stimulus recovery package to be used for a range of transition help, from additional $40 coupons for digital TV converter boxes to a much improved education and assistance campaign.

That campaign includes actual in-home, come-to-your door help — at no charge. For those who are struggling to set up a converter box the FCC will, on a case-by-case basis, send a technician to your home if the problem can't be solved with a phone call through the commission's toll-free line.

"Our in-home converter box installation services are available all across the country," said Rick Kaplan, FCC spokesman. Just in the last few weeks, contractors "have performed in the neighborhood of 2,500 free in-home installations."

And, the FCC's toll-free phone number will be in place "far past the transition," Kaplan said, as will the DTV.gov Web site and the National Association of Broadcasters site, DTVanswers.com.

On May 21, a nationwide "soft test" was done, with TV stations interrupting their broadcaast three times during the day with an informational message to remind households about the June 12 switch.

Of 1,787 stations, 750 have already made a complete switch to digital broadcasts, according to the FCC.

The "soft" test resulted in a "single-day record of 55,000 calls" to the help line, the FCC said. About half the callers wanted information about converter box coupons, another 15 percent expressed concern about reception issues in their areas, and another 10 percent said they needed instructions on how to install the converter box, the agency said.

"This soft test did exactly what it was supposed to do," said Michael Coops, acting FCC chairman, in a press release. "It was a wake-up call for consumers who are unprepared."

Community-by-community efforts
There have also been wake-up calls in communities, small and large around the country, with civic and social groups literally reaching out to the public in places like churches and strip malls.

There has been a shift from "having people come to us to much more (of) finding people where they are," said Mistique Cano of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of 200 advocacy groups, and one of the groups to receive federal funding.

"We have an organizer in San Antonio who does what we here in the office call the 'Taqueria circuit.' He goes into different taquerias and panaderias in San Antonio, will ask the manager if he can make an announcement, and in Spanish, will explain the digital TV transition is coming," and what to do.

Then, she said, he'll order some food, sit down in a booth and say, " 'Hey, if you have any other questions, come to me while I’m here,' and he will sit there and sign people up for (converter box) coupons on his iPhone, answer questions and tell people where they can get local assistance."

Another group, Self-Help for the Elderly, in San Francisco, is dealing with hundreds of calls a day regarding the transition, and provides help in several languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, Cantonese and Mandarin, according to the Leadership Conference.

Converter box coupons
Before the digital TV deadline was extended, the federal government was running out of money for the converter box coupon program. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which adminsters the program, said as of last week 58.1 million coupons have been requested, and 29.3 million redeemed since the coupon program began last year. Each household can get up to two coupons.

For many, converter boxes are the cheapest route to receiving digital TV, with the boxes priced between $50 and $80, and the coupons covering most of that cost. Some consumers have decided to buy new TVs; others have signed up for cable or satellite service, a more expensive route to receive digital TV.

Coupons have a 90-day expiration date, but as part of the DTV Delay Act, Congress voted to let those with expired coupons request new ones from the NTIA. The agency says that so far, there are 21.5 million coupons out there that have expired.

Getting a converter box is one issue, but setting it up another, and has been a problem for many. That's where the community outreach programs have been especially helpful, as is the FCC hotline and in-home assistance.

"I think that really is what folks are grappling with now, is taking those last couple of steps to actually get connected," Cano said. Sometimes that involves the converter box, sometimes it involves the antenna needed to boost the digital signal.

"We're finding that folks can go home and set up their converter box and have done everything right, but they're still missing some channels," or they didn't realize they need an antenna, "so that's an easy fix," she said. "It's walking people through what they need to do."

Kelsey of Consumers Union agrees, saying that his organization is mainly hearing from those who are worried about, " 'How do I hook up my box properly, what do I do if I want to hook up a VCR to it,' really the nuts-and-bolts of how to navigate the transition."

The FCC's toll-free number is a huge help, he said, as are the community efforts, made possible by the federal funding "to make sure the FCC had the resources it needed to get boots on the ground, so to speak, to really help people in the communities where it is most needed."

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