Elderly, others may need help to get digital TV

May 27th, 2006

The change to digital TV can be a struggle for the elderly and people with disabilities, according to a British government report.

A nine-month study in Bolton, Lancashire, found that almost three-quarters of elderly viewers over the age of 75 as well as people with significant disabilities relating to vision, hearing, mobility or learning had difficulties managing their set-top boxes up to four weeks after the change to digital terrestrial TV.

Most report being happy with digital television, however, after the initial period of adjustment. But it bears noting that in Britain, an extensive government program helps those who most need assistance with making the leap to digital TV. They don’t just grudgingly mail out some coupons, either. The program provides free or low-cost equipment and support to install and use it, including a telephone help line.

Subsidy coupons will be available to help Americans buy set-top converter boxes in advance of 2009’s shutoff of analog TV broadcasts. But no special assistance is provided for the elderly or people with disabilities, nor any help with installation or usage. I am not aware of any private or community programs that will provide such help, either.

Draft telecom legislation in the Senate would direct the FCC to establish a DTV Working Group to coordinate with state and local governments and community groups “to promote consumer outreach and to provide logistical assistance to consumers, including converter box delivery and installation.” The FCC would also be directed to recommend procedures for “toll-free informational hotlines.” But the bill—which has other problems—provides no additional federal funding for outreach or installation programs, and its chances are uncertain. (In the UK, the BBC funds the support program through “television license” fees.)

Technological change has already brought about a digital divide in the U.S. If we do not want to leave millions more Americans behind in 2009—without access to even over-the-air television—we have much work to do.

• Link: Digital TV Group

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