Ensuring an Effective Transition to Digital TV

Video Message: Mark L. Goldstein

Mark L. Goldstein

Director, Physical Infrastructure


(202) 512-2834

Federal law mandates that full-power television broadcasters cease analog transmissions after February 17, 2009, and broadcast solely in digital. By this date, millions of households who rely on over-the-air signals viewed on analog sets must take action or risk losing the ability to watch television programming. Such households need to ensure that they have the necessary equipment, such as a digital-to-analog converter box, or subscription video service to be able to view the digital broadcast signals. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) established a $1.5 billion subsidy program through which households can obtain coupons for the purchase of digital-to-analog converter boxes. At-risk consumers who do not adequately prepare for the transition will lose television service, which could include important news information or emergency alerts. Further, should the overall DTV transition not proceed smoothly, it could undermine the public’s confidence in government.

Highlights of GAO-08-43 (PDF)

  • Over one-third of US households are at some risk of losing television service since they have at least one television not connected to cable or satellite. While the vast majority of households have heard of the transition, there is evidence that a large swath of Americans-both those at risk and not at risk--are confused about the steps necessary to prepare for the transition. For example, 45 percent of households at risk of losing service planned to take no action or inadequate action to prepare for the transition. Of at risk households who planned to take action, many indicated they would be likely to use the coupon subsidy program, but only a third knew how to actually obtain a coupon. Another 30 percent indicated they had specific plans to ready themselves for the transition, despite the fact that their television reception would not be affected. Overall, awareness of the transition is widespread, but preparedness for the transition is much lower.

    Highlights of GAO-08-881T (PDF)

  • We found that up to 35 percent of US households could be affected by the transition, however, as of August 31, 2008, only 13 percent of households had requested coupons for converter boxes. Therefore, NTIA will likely face an increase in coupon demand as the transition nears, but it has no plans to address the increased demand. As a result, consumers might incur significant wait time to receive their coupons and might lose television service if their wait time lasts beyond February 17, 2009. We found vulnerable households, including minorities and the elderly, were less likely than non-minorities and non-elderly households to redeem their coupons once they received them. For example, seniors allowed 21 percent of their coupons to expire. The US population as a whole has allowed 13 percent of coupons to expire. Since expired coupons cannot be reissued, we are concerned that households letting their coupons expire might not be taking adequate action to prepare for the transition.

    Highlights of GAO-08-1040 (PDF), Highlights of GAO-08-1161T (PDF)

  • Broadcasters have made significant progress in preparing for the transition and many stations are already broadcasting their digital signal in full power. However, some stations still must resolve difficult technical, coordination, and construction issues. For example, some stations must relocate their digital or analog antennas and, in some cases, construct new broadcast towers. If the technical and coordination issues are not resolved, stations might not be able to broadcast their signals at full strength, meaning viewers could have difficulty receiving the digital broadcast signals or lose some television service altogether.

    Highlights of GAO-08-510 (PDF)

^ Back to topWhat Needs to Be Done

NTIA needs to develop a plan to address the likely increase in coupon requests as the transition nears so that consumers are not left waiting a lengthy amount of time to receive their converter box subsidy, and thus potentially lose service while they are waiting. The Federal Communications Commission can facilitate the transition by working with broadcasters to resolve any outstanding technical and coordination issues that they might have and continuing to raise public awareness about the transition.

Highlights of GAO-08-43 (PDF), Highlights of GAO-08-510 (PDF), Highlights of GAO-08-881T (PDF), and Highlights of GAO-08-1040 (PDF)

^ Back to topKey Reports

Digital Television Transition: Majority of Broadcasters Are Prepared for the DTV Transition, but Some Technical and Coordination Issues Remain
GAO-08-510, April 30, 2008
Digital Television Transition: Broadcasters' Transition Status, Low-Power Station Issues, and Information on Consumer Awareness of the DTV Transition
GAO-08-881T, June 10, 2008
Digital Broadcast Television Transition: Several Challenges Could Arise in Administering a Subsidy Program for DTV Equipment
GAO-05-623T, May 26, 2005
Digital Television Transition: Increased Federal Planning and Risk Management Could Further Facilitate the DTV Transition
GAO-08-43, November 19, 2007
Digital Television Transition: Implementation of the Converter Box Subsidy Program Is Under Way, but Preparedness to Manage an Increase in Subsidy Demand Is Unclear
GAO-08-1040, September 16, 2008
Digital Television Transition: Preliminary Information on Initial Consumer Education Efforts
GAO-07-1248T, September 19, 2007
Digital Television Transition: Issues Related to an Information Campaign Regarding the Transition
GAO-05-940R, September 6, 2005