Telcos differ on DTV transition delay

by Fawn Johnson, Dow Jones

The two largest wireless companies in the United States disagreed Monday about whether Congress should delay the Feb. 17 date when all TV stations must broadcast solely in the digital format.

Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) Chairman Ivan Seidenberg sent a letter to lawmakers saying they should "resist" a recommendation from President-elect Barack Obama's transition team to move back the transition date.

AT&T Inc. (T) sent a letter to Capitol Hill saying it would support a "short extension" of 90 days or less.

"From AT&T's perspective, a smooth transition from analog broadcast transmission to digital is in the public interest and will ultimately benefit all Americans," AT&T's letter said.

"Not only is it unclear that a delay will ensure a smoother transition, but it is likely a delay would undermine the DTV transition by causing significant disruption and consumer confusion," Verizon's letter said.

Both letters were sent to the chairmen and ranking Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, the congressional panels charged with overseeing the digital transition. AT&T also sent its letter to the Federal Communications Commission.

Without congressional action, all TV stations must stop broadcasting in analog format on Feb. 17, which means that people who rely on over-the-air TV broadcasting won't see the programs unless they buy a digital television or converter box or subscribe to a cable or satellite TV service.

Last week, John Podesta, co-chair of the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team, sent a letter to Capitol Hill proposing putting off the digital transition for a short time, arguing that the country isn't ready for the digital-TV shift.

Seidenberg's letter posed several reasons why postponing the digital shift is a bad idea. "Delaying the transition will postpone the availability of spectrum critical for advanced commercial and public safety communications systems that will achieve two important objectives: more extensive broadband deployment and interoperable first-responder communications," it said.

Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon and Vodafone Group PLC (VOD), spent more than $9 billion for the valuable airwaves that will be freed up when TV broadcasters send only digital signals. Verizon Wireless plans to roll out high-speed Internet services using those channels by the end of the year.

Some of the airwaves freed up by the digital shift are designated for firefighters and police officers, although emergency responders aren't in a position to build a national interoperable communications network any time soon.

Consumer advocates and telecom analysts say delaying the digital TV shift for 90 days or less wouldn't significantly hurt wireless companies' business plans.

In the letter, Seidenberg said Congress instead should pass legislation drafted by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., to allow the Commerce Department to immediately begin distributing coupons for digital converter boxes. Lawmakers and members of the Obama transition team have been in an uproar since the Commerce Department announced last week that it had to start a waiting list for the coupon applicants.

The Commerce Department can now only send $40 coupons to consumers when older, unused coupons expire. As of Sunday, the agency has requests for more than 1.7 million coupons on its waiting list.

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