News

DTV Delay Bill in Works

1/16/2009 7:00 PM Eastern

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) last week assembled a bill designed to delay the Feb. 17 digital TV transition and provide new funds for the Commerce Department’s hobbled converter box coupon program.

“All I know is that Senate staffers are working overtime to try and find the right solutions — all options are on the table,” a Senate source said last week.

Rockefeller supports moving the Feb. 17 deadline, perhaps by about 90 days, to give at-risk groups more time to prepare their television sets for all-digital broadcasting.

Two weeks ago, Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta called on Congress to consider postponing the DTV transition deadline, claiming too many poor, elderly and rural Americans would be left behind.

Like Rockefeller, Podesta complained about the Commerce Department’s management of the $1.34 billion converter box coupon program.

“It has gone broke,” said Tom Wheeler, who is participating in an Obama transition working group responsible for the science, technology, space and arts agencies. Wheeler indicated that he recommended delaying the transition to Podesta.

“It came to my desk,” he said in a C-SPAN interview

Some are protesting the effort to delay the DTV transition.

Fifteen House Republicans, led by Rep. Joe Barton (Texas), sent Obama a letter last Wednesday calling on him to let the transition happen as planned under the law signed by President Bush in 2006. Barton is the most senior Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“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,” the lawmakers said.

Each household was allowed to request two $40 coupons, which could be used to reduce the cost of $60 to $80 converter boxes that prolong the useful life of old analog TV sets.

The coupon program hasn’t run out of money, a point emphasized by Barton and the other House Republicans in the letter to Obama.

They told Obama that they hoped that support for delay wasn’t based “on the false premise that the coupon program has or is about to run out of money. It has not, and we assure you that we are going to do everything necessary to help remaining consumers prepare.”

Last Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee released the outline of its economic stimulus bill, which included $650 million for the coupon program.

Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration has at least $600 million to spend. But a federal budget law won’t allow NTIA to mail out new coupons until old ones have expired. That caused NTIA to create a waiting list that includes 2 million requests for coupons.

The coupon backlog coming just a few weeks before the transition prompted Rockefeller to say that NTIA had “appallingly mismanaged” the program.

In addition to delaying the DTV transition, Rockefeller is considering whether to waive the budget law, called the Antideficiency Act, to allow NTIA to clear out the waiting list immediately.

Public-safety organizations are concerned about the delay, too. They want Rockefeller’s bill to require analog TV stations to shut down on Feb. 17 if they are using channels that Congress has already earmarked for police, fire and emergency crews for a national wireless broadband network that has total interoperability — something sorely lacking on 9/11 at the World Trade Center.

First responders are to receive 24 MHz of spectrum so they can communicate on the same frequencies nationally, but they can’t use those airwaves until analog TV stations have cleared out.

“We ask that any legislation implementing a delay in the DTV transition include exemptions for channels that have been reallocated, approved, or are pending approval for public safety communications,” the groups said in a Jan. 9 letter to Obama.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association and National Association of Broadcasters are officially neutral on the delay.

Obama’s support for a delay has split some old friends: AT&T is supporting the president-elect, but Verizon Communications isn’t.

Doubts About the DTV Transition
Who supports delay: President-elect Obama, Senate Commerce Committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller, AT&T, Consumers Union
Who’s Opposed: Bush Commerce Department, House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Verizon, CTIA – The Wireless Association, Consumer Electronics Association, Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International, International Association of Chiefs of Police, International Association of Fire Chiefs, National Public Safety Telecommunications Council
Neutral: National Cable & Telecommunications Association, National Association of Broadcasters