Dingell Pounds NTIA, FCC on DTV Transition

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Washington -- House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) took shots at the Bush administration’s oversight of the digital-TV transition Tuesday, especially the converter-box program designed to keep old analog-TV sets running when only digital signals are available from local TV stations after early 2009.

Congress charged the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration with implementing the converter-box program, but the NTIA has not received permission from the Office of Management and Budget to issue final rules after floating draft rules last summer.

“Based upon the initial proposal from NTIA, the [Bush] administration appears to view this program as little more than an unwelcome homework assignment,” said Dingell, who is debating whether a bill crafting a new transition scheme is needed.

NTIA administrator John Kneuer, who is also Assistant Commerce Secretary for Communications and Information, said last fall that he expected to see rules by the end of 2006.

“We are working diligently to get the final rule out very soon,” NTIA communications director Todd Sedmak said late Tuesday.

Under the digital-TV-transition law enacted one year ago, each household may apply for two $40 government coupons to help defray the cost of digital-to-analog converter boxes. Although the NTIA has $1.5 billion to spend, the program would need nearly $3 billion to fund the 73 million analog TVs that currently rely exclusively on free over-the-air broadcasting.

To the dismay of Dingell and other House Democrats, the NTIA proposed excluding cable- and satellite-TV homes from the program. It also indicated that it might support limiting coupon eligibility to low-income broadcast-only homes.

“Their initial notice showed rather shocking ignorance of the congressional debate and little attention to the attitude of the American people,” Dingell said in a speech here to 500 members of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Dingell also questioned whether the Federal Communications Commission under chairman Kevin Martin was up to the task. "I have some additional and serious concerns with the FCC's desire and ability to handle the overall transition,” he said.

Dingell is concerned that a poorly managed transition would anger millions of consumers, who would make their displeasure felt at the polls.

“I think we can be sure of one thing: If the converter-box [program] doesn’t proceed smoothly, a day of reckoning will come that will be a harsh day, a scapegoat will be found, people will be voted off the island,” Dingell said. “It’s going to be no small task to guide the public through the transition without cutting off millions of Americans from a vital source of local news and information.”

Key metrics associated with the transition are a moving target. The assumption that when the analog TV cutoff happens Feb. 17, 2009, the country will need to deal with a massive analog-equipment-legacy problem could turn out to be incorrect.

The NTIA, citing consumer-electronics-industry data, believes that by the end of 2008, U.S. consumers will have purchased 115 million digital-TV sets, or roughly one per household. But it’s unclear whether the acquisition of digital TVs will prompt consumers to ditch their old analog sets, thereby reducing the need for converter-box subsidies.

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