Obama team asks Congress to postpone DTV switch

by Kim Hart, Washington Post

President-elect Barack Obama's transition team today asked key members of Congress to consider delaying the nation's switch to digital television scheduled for Feb. 17, saying there is "insufficient support" for the problems consumers will experience during the shut-off of analog signals.

In a letter sent to Capitol Hill this afternoon, the transition team said congressional action is needed. The action would be the "first step" toward helping consumers get ready for the transition to digital television. It also called funds provided to support the conversion "woefully inadequate."

The request for a delay comes 41 days before the government-mandated switch to all-digital broadcasts, which requires the nation's full-powered television stations to permanently shut off the traditional analog signals they have used for more than half a century. Analog television sets that rely on "rabbit ear" or rooftop antennas to receive broadcasts will not work unless they are upgraded with a converter box. Consumers who have digital TV sets, or who subscribe to cable or satellite service, will not lose programming.

Preparations for the switch to digital television have been rocky, causing lawmakers and consumer advocates to seriously worry that television watchers, particularly low-income, rural and elderly Americans who rely most heavily on over-the-air signals, will lose access to their main source of news and entertainment. This week, federal officials said the program to distribute $40 coupons to consumers to help defray the cost of converter boxes has run out of money, so consumers who need the coupons may not receive them in time for 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-Biden Presidential Transition Team wrote in the letter, which was sent to leaders of the Senate and House Commerce committees.

The government-mandated switch to digital television will free up wireless airwaves for public safety agencies and other advanced mobile services. An auction of those analog airwaves raised $19 billion for the government last year. Congress allocated $1.34 billion to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to distribute converter box coupons.

By early February, projections suggest the number of consumers on the waiting list to get a coupon could climb to 5 million, increasing by hundreds of thousands every day, the letter to Congress said.

Yesterday, Consumers Union urged Congress to delay the transition "until a plan is in place to minimize the number of consumers who will lose TV signals."

Lawmakers are looking for ways to make sure consumers who need coupons get them in time. "But with the date looming, moving the date back certainly warrants further discussion and may be a wise choice," Daniel Reilly, a spokesman for Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, said yesterday.

Consumers Union also questioned the ability of the Federal Communications Commission's call centers to handle a flood of calls from confused television-watchers on Feb. 17.

article originally published at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/08/AR2009010802586.....

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