GOP lawmakers oppose DTV delay, accuse Dems of panic

by Roy Mark, eWeek

The Senate and House are drafting legislation to add funding for converter box subsidies and to possibly push the transition deadline for the changeover from analog to digital broadcasting by at least three months.

Republican lawmakers are balking over President-elect Barack Obama and Democratic lawmakers' call to delay the Feb. 17 digital television transition deadline. The legislation setting the deadline was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress in 2005.

"[The transition] is freeing broadcast spectrum for firefighters, police officers and other life-savers and also providing them with $1 billion to equip themselves with the state-of-the-art communications gear that was so tragically lacking on 9/11," Rep. Joe Barton, the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and 14 committee Republicans said in a Jan. 14 letter to Obama's transition team. "The transition plan is freeing additional spectrum for advanced wireless broadband services and has raised almost $20 billion in spectrum auction proceeds for taxpayers."

The Republicans claim "none of this would have happened" without a hard deadline for television stations to cease broadcasting in analog after Feb. 17.

"No one said this was going to be easy, but we have unquestionably made the right decision to complete the digital television transition on February 17, 2009," the lawmakers wrote. "We believe that panicky talk of a delay is breeding stultifying uncertainty, and that an actual delay would be a monumental error in judgment that would damage the program and the public."

Obama's transition team told lawmakers Jan. 8 that Congress should delay the transition date after the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) announced Jan. 5 that funding for the $1.34 billion digital converter box coupon program has been temporarily exhausted. Eligible converter boxes are for the conversion of over-the-air digital television signals and are not needed for analog TVs connected to a paid provider such as cable or satellite TV service.

Consumers still seeking a coupon will be placed on a waiting list for expired but unredeemed coupons to become available. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) on Jan. 6 said it has selected 12 grassroots organizations and local agencies to help over-the-air viewers prepare for the digital transition, and the FCC has thrown in $8.4 million for public outreach. Broadcasters have already spent more than $1 billion on public education about the transition.

"With coupons unavailable, support and education insufficient and the most vulnerable Americans exposed, I urge you to consider a change to the legislatively mandated analog cutoff date," John Podesta, co-chair of the Obama transition group, said in a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Barton and his fellow House Republicans said the DTV coupon subsidy program is not about to run out of money.

"It has not and we assure you that we are going to everything necessary to help remaining consumers prepare," the letter to Obama stated. "We are working on bipartisan legislation that would allow the government to issue a responsible number of additional coupons even before circulating coupons expire."

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, though, are rumored to have concluded that there is not enough time to answer the almost 2 million requests now on a government waiting list and are working on legislation to move the deadline, in addition to freeing up more money for the coupon program.

Rep. Rick Boucher, the new chairman of the committee, was unavailable for comment due to a family illness.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Jan. 13 he was working on legislation to delay the transition by at least three months.

"While there are claims that hundreds of millions of private-sector dollars have been spent making Americans aware of the DTV transition, it seems that most Americans have no idea what it really is even if they have heard of it," Rockefeller said on the floor of the Senate Nov. 20. "New surveys suggest more consumers are growing aware of the transition, but consumers overall remain confused about what steps they need to take to prepare. Consumer Reports magazine has found that 63 percent of Americans have major misconceptions about what steps they need to take to prepare."

Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said Jan. 12 the Senate should stay the course for the transition.

"Congress should quickly eliminate the coupon shortage. If additional funding is needed, Congress should provide it. It will be less disruptive to fix the coupon program than to delay the transition date," Ensign said. "Let's do what needs to be done to address this, rather than take the easy way out and delay the transition date."

According to a Nielsen survey conducted at the end of November 2008, 93 percent of U.S. households had at least one television set prepared for the transition and 83 percent had all of their televisions prepared.

The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005 requires full-power television stations to cease analog broadcasts and switch to digital after Feb. 17. The Act authorized NTIA to create the TV Converter Box Coupon Program, which is funded from the proceeds of the 700MHz auction held in 2008.

The analog airwaves being deserted by broadcasters will be used by first responders and for advanced wireless services such as the delivery of third- and fourth-generation wireless broadband.

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