Assistance center help prepare Minnesotans of color for DTV

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With less than 40 days remaining, at least 6.2 percent of U.S. households are considered “completely unready” for the February 17 digital television switch, including 5.2 percent of homes headed by people over age 55, according to recent Nielsen Media Services figures.

The Minnesota Broadcasters Association also claims that 21.5 percent of Minnesota homes do not have cable or satellite television, 23 percent of which are located in the Twin Cities area.

Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and people who rely on languages other than English, low-income working families, senior citizens and people with disabilities who rely on over-the-air television will be most affected by the switch, says the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), a national coalition of nearly 200 community organizations.

“It is not just about access to entertainment,” LCCR President Wade Henderson explains. “It’s about access to life-saving public service announcements.”

“Access to communications is not a luxury; it’s a necessity,” LCCR Twin Cities coordinator Paula Fynboh adds. “People watch television for entertainment, but they also watch it for educational programming, for emergencies, and other vital information.”

LCCR is urging residents to act now and take the necessary steps to convert at least one television in their household before February 17. The organization recently opened two DTV Assistance Centers — the Main Street Project in South Minneapolis and the Lao Assistance Center in North Minneapolis — to assist community residents with digital conversion information, training and technical support.

Citizens can call during regular business hours, 9 am — 5 pm, says Main Street Project Program Director Amalia Anderson. “We will be staffing those phone calls,” she adds.

“Our assistance centers are set up to reach out to at-risk communities for whom English is not necessarily their primary language,” adds Bryan Thao Worra of the Lao Assistance Center.

LCCR assistant coordinator Diana Perry said that she hopes to partner with the Minneapolis Urban League and other local groups that directly work with the Black community. “I know that the Main Street Project has a real good relationship with the Somalia Action Alliance, which isn’t specific to African Americans,” she explains. “My sole job is to expand that list. We are working on filling in the holes [and] are focusing a little bit more on progressive organizations, faith-based organizations, senior citizens and disabled [people] organizations.”

However, Steven Renderos of the Minnesotano Media Empowerment Project quickly pointed out that not all Latinos in Minnesota live in urban areas. “So we have partnered with [Main Street Project] to reach out to rural Latinos as well,” he said.

The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 requires that all full-power U.S. television stations switch from analog to digital broadcasting. However, some misconceptions have existed, including the belief that people had to buy new televisions.

Congress authorized the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to create the TV Converter Box Coupon Program. Each household can apply for up to two $40 coupons per household to go toward the purchase of the converter box, and it usually takes up to six weeks to process and send out coupons. Over 24 million households have applied, and over 46 million coupons were sent out.

However, on January 4, the NTIA announced that due to the high demand for coupons, all applicants now would be placed on a first-come-first-served waiting list because the coupon program reached its $1.34 billion ceiling.

“We are not surprised that NTIA had hit the ceiling on sending the coupons out,” surmised LCCR Vice President Mark Lloyd.

President Barack Obama has asked Congress to delay the February 17 switchover, but this might be unlikely. Henderson proposed that Congress should immediately “ensure that every American that needs a coupon gets one” before the deadline.

LCCR also has started the Twin Cities’ DTV coupon exchange program. Minnesotans can mail their unused coupons to DTV Coupon Exchange Program, P.O. Box 50253, Minneapolis, MN 55405. Those who do not need their coupons can donate them to households who need them.

Yet, some question whether the digital conversion information reached those who most needing it — non-cable and satellite consumers, Blacks, persons of color, the elderly, low-income persons and others. Although the digital TV conversion “has been publicized for over a year, there are [those] who [still] are not aware of the change or know what to do,” Henderson said. “I think this was mismanaged from the get-go.”

“Our target groups all along for consumer education has been the elderly, rural, the disabled, low income and minorities,” responded NTIA Acting Assistant Secretary Meredith Baker. “We have done a large bit of outreach to these focus groups across the country.”

Finally, consumers who currently have free TV using an antenna, and especially if your television was bought before 1998, must do one of these things: buy a converter box, buy a new digital television, buy a DVD recorder or DVR (such as Tivo) with a digital tuner, or subscribe to cable, satellite or other pay service.

If not, come February 17, you may find yourself with a blank TV screen.

Consumers can apply for the NTIA coupons either on-line at www.DTV2009.gov, by phone at 1-888-DTV-2009,by fax at 1-877-388-4632 or by mail: P.O. Box 2000, Portland, OR 97208.

Coupons are valid for 90 days after issuance. Digital converter boxes can be purchased at most national retailers, and also on online.

For more information on the DTV transition, go to www.civil rights.org/dtv.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.

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