NMHC Notebook: Digital TV Transition

By Betsy Feigin Befus, NMHCThe clock is ticking. On February 17, all full-power television stations will shut off their analog signals. Our nationwide transition to digital television (DTV) will be official. Low-powered stations are expected to convert in the future. But despite public service announcements, apartment owners can’t assume their residents are adequately prepared for it. Apartment firms should audit their portfolios now to assess potential effects on their properties and residents to ensure a smooth transition. Although apartment owners do not have a mandatory role in the conversion process, they should take steps well in advance of February 17. Owners that provide residents with access to an “over-the-air” rooftop antenna should determine whether the antenna must be replaced entirely or whether modifications to existing equipment will allow residents continued access. Alternatively, an owner may opt to discontinue the use of a rooftop antenna. Properties that lease rooftop space should consider the potential impact on that revenue stream since some antenna owners will opt to remove them rather than upgrade them. An apartment owner offering bulk video service to residents should be aware that a community’s channel lineup could shrink as video companies eliminate their analog channels. This issue is particularly important to some niche markets where bulk service is prevalent, such as the expanding student housing market. Although cable companies are not obligated to remove their analog channels on February 17, and most providers will continue to offer some analog channels in addition to digital ones beyond that date, they are expected to reduce analog offerings over time. The transition to all-digital service will vary market to market, and according to each particular cable company’s business strategy. Student housing properties, for example, will likely need to contract for more expensive upgraded bulk offerings to maintain current channel lineups that residents expect. Apartment firms should consider the impact of the transition to digital on certain community amenities, including televisions in common areas and those that are attached to exercise equipment. Expensive television-incorporated fitness machines may be problematic after the transition, because currently available analog-to-digital conversion products do not work on them. A long way to goAccording to a recently released report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), nearly half of television viewers that currently rely on “over-the-air” signals—the group of consumers most affected by next year’s change—are unprepared for the transition.The GAO estimates that about 70 million people use televisions with over-the-air antennas. That is to say that there are quite a few television viewers—including apartment residents—who do not have subscription television service and still have old-fashioned “rabbit ear” antennas sitting atop their sets and rooftop antennas as discussed above.Members of Congress are concerned that, despite the initiatives by the federal government and the broadcasting industry to educate consumers about the transition, too many Americans will wake up next February unable to watch television. On June 10, the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing to discuss the problem. Among other issues addressed at the hearing is the Wilmington, N.C. pilot program, due to start this month, in which five local stations will switch to digital and turn off their analog broadcasts. But Representative John Dingell (D-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is unconvinced that the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency charged with implementing the conversion, is well positioned to educate the entire country in the way that the Wilmington community will be informed.Your important roleEven residents that subscribe to a cable or satellite service should be encouraged to contact their service provider to ensure that they have the proper equipment to continue to watch television without complications.Congress’ decision to mandate the transition to digital television was made primarily to make available airwaves that will be used by first responders and other public safety agencies. Cable companies need more bandwidth to offer more services to consumers, including high-definition programming. Digital technology also provides higher-quality images and sound. But the technology isn’t perfectly reliable and some affected broadcasters are not fully equipped for February 17. Thirteen percent of television stations report that they have yet to install or adjust their digital antennas, which can be a complicated process that could take months. It has also been reported that there have been financial challenges relating to infrastructure costs, permitting delays and concerns about coordinating the transition.Fortunately, help is available. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is administering a $1.5 billion program to provide coupons worth $40 off the cost of an analog-to-digital converter box. Until March 31, 2009, a household will be eligible to receive up to two coupons. Although apartment owners are not permitted to request coupons on a resident’s behalf, assisting residents with information about the program is advisable. Coupon ordering information and more general information about the transition are available at www.dtv.gov. Betsy Feigin Befus is vice president, employment policy and special counsel for the National Multi Housing Council in Washington, D.C.