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Telco resists DTV notifications on phone bills

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Created 12/27/2007 - 8:40am

from: Lasar's Letter [1]

Telco resists DTV notifications on phone bills
by Matthew Lasar Dec 14 2007 - 10:51am DTV transition

A major phone company threw the book at a proposal to require incumbent telcos to provide consumers with information about the upcoming DTV transition in their telephone and cable bills. Qwest's December 12th filing with the Federal Communications Commission claims the idea will cause "customer confusion" and violate the First Amendment.

"Any notice about changes in broadcast television signals should come from sources that have a reasonable, logical connection to the issue," a rep from Qwest explained to an advisor to Commissioner Robert McDowell that day. "In this instance, that could include, e.g., broadcasters, cable and satellite television providers, and manufacturers of television sets."

The government has set February 17th, 2009 as the last day of analog broadcasting. The next day all TV stations must transmit via digital (or "DTV") signals. To help the estimated 21 million households that still have analog TV make the transition, the Department of Commerce will soon issue discount coupons good for set top boxes that convert analog sets into digital receivers.

Groups on the FCC's Consumer Advisory Council (CAC) want telephone companies include information about the transition on their customer bills, but at an August 10th CAC meeting, a representative from Verizon strongly resisted this suggestion. Now Qwest is fighting it as well.

Qwest argues that:

* "There is no nexus between changes in broadcast television and basic, local, television service." Notices should come from broadcasters and TV manufacturers instead.
* The FCC has no direct statutory authority to order Qwest to inform its customers about the transition.
* The proposal runs afoul of the First Amendment. Qwest argues that the DTV transition is an "important" issue but not "compelling"—the latter governmental keyword necessary to require a regulated entity to act. "Educating the telecom customers about the DTV transition is important but not compelling," Qwest concludes.
* Qwest has already "finalized" the content of its billing inserts through June 2008.

In fact, Qwest has a direct connection to this issue: it provides television service for millions of customers. And the filing does not explain why making sure that the TV sets of 21 million American households do not go dark does not represent a "compelling" priority, given that many of these households are top heavy with elderly and poor consumers.

Nor does the statement explain why a billing insert after June 2008 could not add mention of the DTV transition.

In other DTV related news, the FCC responded to a Government Accountability Office draft report that, according to the FCC, suggests that "no comprehensive plan exists for the DTV transition and that the FCC, in conjunction with public and private stakeholders, should develop and communicate such a plan."

LLFCC recently summarized a GAO letter to the FCC warning that the transition schedule "faces challenges that could affect the outcome of the program."

Specifically, the letter said that TV retailers may not be able to start selling converter set top boxes to the public by January 1st, 2008, as planned.

"Retailers told us that March or April of 2008—3 to 4 months after consumers can begin requesting coupons—is a likely time frame for retailers to be ready to participate in the program," the document explains.

That's certainly what LLFCC found when we called TV retailers here in the San Francisco Bay Area to see if they were up for the coupon program.

But the FCC has put out a lengthy response to the GAO draft saying that they indeed have a plan all laid out.

"As we explained to the GAO, the FCC has been planning for the DTV transition for more than 20 years," the introduction to the response says.

This is not the impression, however, of either of the FCC's Democrats, both of whom published dissents to the response.

"This GAO Report confirms what I've been saying for well over a year," declared Jonathan Adelstein. "The FCC does not have a strategic plan for the DTV transition. There is not even a plan to come up with a plan."

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