The Government Accountability Office has just released a report to Congress (PDF) slamming the efforts of the FCC and the NTIA to alert consumers about the upcoming transition to digital television. The report finds that, despite plenty of work done by various agencies and private organizations, "no comprehensive plan exists" to manage the entire transition.
If it's difficult to explain the February 2009 digital TV transition to consumers, it's doubly difficult when hundreds of different groups are involved. The GAO points out that over 160 "business, trade, grassroots, and other organizations" are involved with the Digital Television Transition Coalition. The group, which is trying to get the word out so that angry seniors don't beat down their doors, also needs to coordinate with the two government agencies involved with the transition.
And that level of coordination demands a Plan, a Plan complete with milestones, key goals, and risk mitigation scenarios. In other words, a long and boring document. But as FCC Chairman Kevin Martin admitted in an interview with GAO auditors, the FCC has no such formal plan. Instead, said Martin, "the various orders contained in the FCC dockets amount to a plan."
Yes, I am. But is the government?
The GAO disagrees. And without an overarching plan,the GAO worries that government and private industry will run into coordination problems. "Complicating matters is uncertainty regarding retailer participation and readiness and potential challenges related to inventory planning," says the report. "With limited or delayed retailer participation, consumers might face difficulties in redeeming their coupons for eligible converter boxes during the designated time period." And if the converter box program turns into a debacle, things could get ugly.
Now, the FCC and the NTIA have all done plenty of work; the FCC has even launched an ugly but functional web site (complete with Netscape favicon) for consumers. Private industry, too, has agreed to spend millions promoting the transition, with the Consumer Electronics Association, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association all chipping in.
But the GAO wants coordination and milestones, and its report issues guidance for how to get such a Plan together. The official responses to this advice have been interesting. Kevin Martin sent a letter to the GAO complaining about the report's approach and conclusions, but didn't bother to indicate why. Instead, he spent most of the letter complaining that the GAO would not include a lengthy FCC document in the report (the GAO has put it up online).
The Department of Commerce, which runs the NTIA, acknowledged that simply relying on voluntary industry participation for such a crucial campaign had certain risks, but Commerce was not at all convinced that establishing a "digital transition czar" was the right answer. The GAO drily notes that "we did not recommend establishing a digital transition czar" and that Commerce offered no comment on the actual recommendations made.
So, with the government agencies apparently unwilling to address the actual recommendations made by the GAO, it doesn't look like a full-fledged Plan will be forthcoming. Let's hope the transition goes smoothly without one. If not, you stock up on the pitchforks, I'll collect the torches, and we'll meet at the FCC on a cold day in 2009 when the glow from our TVs turns to static. (Note: I have an ATSC-ready TV, so I won't actually be there. But I'll be thinking of you! Stay warm!)