NEW YORK, Feb 20 (IPS) – Imagine turning on your television and all you see is black and white fuzz.

This might be the scenario for the estimated 6 million U.S. citizens who have been left in the dark when it has come to the nation’s required digital television transition.

While U.S. households will now have until Jun. 12 instead of Feb. 17 to prepare their television sets for the transition from analog to digital broadcast, there are still many roadblocks that stand in the way for those who rely on analog television.

Households that can’t afford an analog to digital converter box are on a waitlist for federal discount coupons due to high demand, and even those who already have converter boxes are experiencing problems.

And while the transition deadline has been extended, over 400 television stations in the U.S. have already begun broadcasting exclusively in digital, leaving those who have yet to make the transition without essential programming.

Some 21 million U.S. citizens rely on over-the-air television, half of whom make less than 30,000 dollars a year and a third of whom are disabled, according to a July 2008 report by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), which partnered with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to distribute information about the DTV transition.

Many organisations focused on media justice see the digital television transition as an important crucial issue because it particularly limits access to information to these and other communities.

Amalia Deloney, programme director for the Main Street Project, a national grassroots initiative helping rural communities, said, ‘It’s a communication rights issue. We got involved in this because it is the most recent issue of the digital divide that people are going to face.’

The switch for these disenfranchised families is important due to their reliance on television for alerts during extreme events, said Lisa Holland, director of Communications at Community Action Partnership, an NTIA partner organisation that spread the word of the transition to low-income families.

‘I do think it is critical that the vulnerable populations have television access as that is their primary access to news and information during emergency situations,’ she said.

In order to ensure that analog television users are not without this important resource, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has required that at least one station in each market remain analog for at least two months to provide emergency information, news and information about how to make the digital television transition.

The FCC’s decision to switch to digital television in the United States was originally due to a combination of efficiency and economic incentives. While there are promises of better picture and sound quality, ultimately digital television allows for more channels in the broadcast spectrum compared to analog. The government has allocated the remaining analog channels for use by public safety agencies such as police and fire departments and auctioned off the majority of the rest of the available channels to wireless companies.

Brandon Lacey Campos, a national organiser for the Centre for Media Justice, views this action as silencing the means to access public voices.

‘What this should mean is the increase in public airwaves for the public good,’ he said. ‘Instead the FCC has auctioned off to private companies so there is little tangible expansion of public airwaves.’

LCCR, Community Action Partnership and other organisations are using methods such as operating DTV assistance centres and hosting coupon sign-up events where consumers can watch a converter box demonstration and apply for their coupons on the spot to get the word out about the transition.

Deloney has seen the problems faced by people firsthand while working at an assistance centre in Minneapolis, but also sees the benefits of offering assistance.

‘The first response we get from people is that they have no idea about the transition, and the second response is they know there is a big change but they don’t know how to meet the requirements,’ she said.

‘We’re actually using a more movement building approach. We are passing on the knowledge and the skills to make them feel self-determined about this and other issues in the future,’ Deloney added.

Lacey Campos also sees this issue as an opportunity to bring more attention to the media justice movement as it affects people’s daily lives.

‘For us this is a tangible social justice movement around the media which feeds into our justice organizations. People see what it means for a federal agency to impact their lives in such a direct way. The best time to bring someone into the movement is by helping them, so if we do this we do this right we will bring more people into our work.’

Some funding help may be on the way. Funds that are currently tied up in expired coupons are expected to be released by the NTIA, and an additional 650 million dollars will be available for more coupons thanks to the nation’s larger stimulus bill which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Tuesday.

While waiting for this money to be released, however, households will have to pay for their own converter boxes but will not be able to receive any money back because coupons cannot be redeemed after their purchase, a decision which can put a strain on certain households.

‘My understanding is that if the coupon programme is not refunded, households of the elderly, people with disabilities and people of colour will be impacted more than the larger population,’ said Mark Lloyd, vice president of strategic initiatives at LCCR.

Holland does eventually expect there to be some relief for those for whom the cost of converter boxes is beyond their financial means.

‘I think that people have been very understanding, that with the economy the way it is that there is a vulnerable population that needs that 40 dollars to help put food on the table,’ she said.

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